Federal Aviation Administration

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Federal Aviation Administration

Half a century after Wilbur and Orville Wright flew an airplane for 12 seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903—becoming the first U.S. residents to successfully fly a powered aircraft—Congress established the Federal Aviation Agency, later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (49 U.S.C.A. § 106). Under the act, the FAA became responsible for all the following:

  • Regulating air commerce to promote its development and safety and to meet national defense requirements
  • Controlling the use of navigable airspace in the United States and regulating both civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of safety and efficiency
  • Promoting and developing civil Aeronautics, which is the science of dealing with the operation of civil, or nonmilitary, aircraft
  • Consolidating research and development with respect to air navigation facilities
  • Installing and operating air navigation facilities
  • Developing and operating a common system of air traffic control and navigation for civil and military aircraft
  • Developing and implementing programs and regulations to control aircraft noise, sonic booms, and other environmental effects of civil aviation

A component agency of the department of transportation ever since the Department of Transportation Act was passed in 1967 (49 U.S.C.A. § 1651), the FAA engages in a variety of activities to fulfill its responsibilities. One vital activity is safety regulation. The FAA issues and enforces rules, regulations, and minimum standards relating to the manufacture, operation, and maintenance of aircraft. In the interest of safety, the FAA also rates and certifies people working on aircraft, including medical personnel, and certifies airports that serve air carriers. The agency performs flight inspections of air navigation facilities in the United States and, as required, abroad. It also enforces regulations under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (49 U.S.C.A. app. 1801) as they apply to air shipments. In 1994, the FAA employed 2,500 safety inspectors, who oversaw 7,300 planes operated by scheduled airlines, 200,000 other planes, 4,700 repair stations, 650 pilot training schools, and 190 maintenance schools. FAA inspectors use a six-inch-thick book called the Airworthiness Inspector's Handbook in their work. They have significant power, including the ability to delay or ground aircraft deemed non-airworthy and to suspend the license of pilots and other flight personnel who break FAA rules.

Another primary activity of the FAA is to manage airspace and air traffic, with the goal being to ensure the safe and efficient use of the United States' navigable airspace. To meet this goal, the agency operates a network of airport traffic control towers, air route traffic control centers, and flight service stations. It develops air traffic rules and regulations and allocates the use of airspace. It also provides for the security control of air traffic to meet national defense requirements.

The FAA also oversees the creation, operation, maintenance, and quality of federal visual and electronic aids to air navigation. The agency operates and maintains voice and data communications equipment, radar facilities, computer systems, and visual display equipment at flight service stations, airport traffic control towers, and air route traffic control centers.

Research, engineering, and development activities of the agency help provide the systems, procedures, facilities, and devices needed for a safe and efficient system of air navigation and air traffic control to meet the needs of civil aviation and the air defense system. The FAA also performs aeromedical research to apply knowledge gained from its work and the work of others to the safety and promotion of civil aviation and the health, safety, and efficiency of agency employees. The agency further supports the development and testing of improved aircraft, engines, propellers, and appliances.

The FAA is authorized to test and evaluate aviation systems, subsystems, equipment, devices, materials, concepts, and procedures at any phase in their development, from conception to acceptance and implementation. The agency may assign independent testing at key decision points in the development cycle of these elements.

The agency maintains a national plan of airport requirements and administers a grant program for the development of public-use airports, to ensure safety and to meet current and future capacity needs. The FAA also evaluates the environmental effects of airport development; administers an airport noise compatibility program; develops standards and technical guidance on airport planning, design, safety, and operation; and provides grants to assist public agencies in airport planning and development.

The FAA registers aircraft and records documents related to the title or interest in aircraft, aircraft engines, propellers, appliances, and spare parts.

Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and the International Aviation Facilities Act (49 U.S.C.A. app. 1151), the agency promotes aviation safety and civil aviation abroad by exchanging aeronautical information with foreign aviation authorities; certifying foreign repair stations, aviators, and mechanics; negotiating bilateral airworthiness agreements to facilitate the import and export of aircraft and components; and providing technical assistance and training in all areas of the agency's expertise. The agency provides technical representation at international conferences, including those of the International Civil Aviation Organization and other international organizations.

Finally, the agency conducts miscellaneous activities such as administering the aviation insurance and aircraft loan guarantee programs; assigning priority and allocating materials for civil aircraft and civil aviation operations; developing specifications for the preparation of aeronautical charts; publishing current information on airways and airport services and issuing technical publications for the improvement of safety in flight, airport planning, and design; and serving as the executive administration for the operation and maintenance of the Department of Transportation's automated payroll and personnel systems.

No stranger to controversy, the FAA has been at the center of a variety of national debates during its existence. In the early 1980s, 11,000 air traffic controllers went on strike to protest stressful working conditions. When President ronald reagan ordered them fired, the FAA pledged to replace many of them by overhauling and modernizing the system that guides planes from takeoff to landing. Fifteen years later, some critics of the FAA contended that the agency had yet to create a modern air traffic control system, causing delays that cost the airline industry up to $5 billion a year. Speaking on the subject in January 1996, Senator William S. Cohen (R-MA), a member of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, said, "The FAA is a victim of its own poor management. If the agency devoted more time to managing itself and less time to defending its deficiencies, the air traffic control system would have been replaced years ago."

In the 1980s, the FAA supported drugtesting for commercial airline pilots and air traffic controllers. Though drug-testing is a form of search, implicating Fourth Amendment concerns, these drug tests are routinely upheld as a permissible invasion of privacy in light of the public safety concerns associated with air travel.

With U.S. air traffic increasing by almost 130 percent from 1978 to 1994, fatal aircraft accidents also increased. Critics of the FAA say that the agency failed to increase its number of inspectors at a rate comparable to the rate of growth in air traffic; in fact, the agency had only 12 percent more inspectors in 1994 than it did in 1978. The FAA also came under scrutiny for the safety of smaller aircraft after a succession of fatal commuter jet crashes in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. In 1988, for example, an AVAir plane crashed in Raleigh, North Carolina, killing 12 people. In the two months before the accident, AVAir had another accident, filed for Bankruptcy, shut down, and restarted. In that time, AVAir's FAA inspector never visited the airline's headquarters, observed a pilot check ride, or met the training director.

Together with Federico F. Peña, secretary of the U.S. Transportation Department, David R. Hinson, administrator of the FAA, set what he called an ambitious new goal at a January 1995 aviation safety summit: zero accidents. In September of 1995, he defended his agency on the safety issue by saying that of the 173 safety initiatives developed at the summit, more than two-thirds were already complete. Calling perfect safety a shared responsibility, Hinson asked for a "hands-on, eyes-open commitment of every person who designs, builds, flies, maintains and regulates aircraft." The same month, the FAA announced plans to train air traffic controllers with computer simulators. In early 1996, the federal government enacted new rules intended to make small commuter turboprop planes as safe as big jets. As part of the change, the FAA began requiring small airlines to follow the same rules for training and operations as do major airlines.

In the wake of the September 11th Attacks of 2001, in which terrorists used commercial airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center in New York and seriously damage the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the FAA shifted much of its focus to airline and airport security. Shortly after the attacks on the morning of September 11th, the FAA ordered the grounding of all aircraft in the United States. About 1100 planes were rerouted to new destinations in the first 15 minutes after the order was issued. Throughout the chaotic day, about 4,500 planes eventually landed. The FAA required the planes to remain grounded for several days after the attacks.

The FAA immediately began considering new rules and regulations for protecting airports and airlines from further attacks. Airport security was tightened considerably. Air carriers are now required to check each ticketed passenger for government-issued identification. Baggage is checked more thoroughly at screening points, and only ticketed passengers may pass beyond the screening area. The regulations also restricted the ability of passengers to use the curbs outside of the airports.

More restrictions were placed on items that may be brought aboard a flight by passengers. Because the terrorist attacks on September 11 were perpetrated largely through the use of household goods—box cutters—the FAA identified a number of potentially dangerous items that are now restricted from being carried on board by passengers. Such items include firearms, knives and other cutting or puncturing instruments, corkscrews, athletic equipment such as baseball bats or golf clubs, fireworks and other explosive devices, and flammable liquids or solids.

Additionally, the FAA required all cockpit doors and framing on about 7,000 domestic aircraft to be replaced with a tougher access system by April of 2003. In an effort to comply with this regulation, most commercial airlines installed bombproof and/or bulletproof cockpit doors. Additionally, Before September 11, 2001, fewer than 50 air marshals flew, primarily on international flights. After the attacks, however, FAA officials expanded the program. Although the precise number of marshals flying is classified, the program had grown to slightly more than 4,000 marshals by 2003.

Further readings

Boswell, J., and A. Coats. 1994. "Saving the General Aviation Industry: Putting Tort Reform to the Test." Journal of Air Law and Commerce 60 (December-January).

Hamilton, J. Scott. 2001. Practical Aviation Law. 3d ed. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press.

Rollo, V. Foster. 2000. Aviation Law: An Introduction. 5th ed. Lanham, Md.: Maryland Historical Press.

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