About the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Responsible for The Safety and Efficiency of Aviation

Jet airliners being de-iced before takeoff
Snow Storm Snarls Air Traffic From Chicago To East Coast. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Created under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) functions as a regulatory agency under the U.S. Department of Transportation with a primary mission of ensuring the safety of civil aviation.

"Civil aviation" includes all non-military, private and commercial aviation activities, including aerospace activities. The FAA also works closely with the U.S. military to ensure the safe operation of military aircraft in public airspace across the nation.

Under the oversight of the FAA, America's national airspace system currently serves more than 2.7 million passengers traveling on more than 44,000 flights per day.

Primary Responsibilities of the FAA Include:

  • Regulating civil aviation to promote safety within the U.S. and abroad. The FAA exchanges information with foreign aviation authorities; certifies foreign aviation repair shops, air crews, and mechanics; provides technical aid and training; negotiates bilateral airworthiness agreements with other countries; and takes part in international conferences.
  • Encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.
  • Developing and operating a system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft.
  • Researching and developing the National Airspace System and civil aeronautics.
  • Developing and carrying out programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation,
  • Regulating U.S. commercial space transportation. The FAA licenses commercial space launch facilities and private launches of space payloads on expendable launch vehicles.

Investigation of aviation incidents, accidents and disasters is conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government agency.

Organization of the FAA

An administrator manages FAA, assisted by a Deputy Administrator. Five Associate Administrators report to the Administrator and direct the line-of-business organizations that carry out the agency's principle functions. The Chief Counsel and nine Assistant Administrators also report to the Administrator. The Assistant Administrators oversee other key programs such as Human Resources, Budget, and System Safety. We also have nine geographical regions and two major centers, the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center and the William J. Hughes Technical Center.

FAA History

What would become the FAA was born in 1926 with passage of the Air Commerce Act. The law established the framework of the modern FAA by directing the Cabinet-level Department of Commerce with promoting commercial aviation, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certifying aircraft, establishing airways, and operating and maintaining systems to help pilots navigate the skies. The Commerce Department’s new Aeronautics Branch took off, overseeing U.S. aviation for the next eight years.

In 1934, the former Aeronautics Branch was renamed the Bureau of Air Commerce. In one of its first acts the Bureau worked with a group of airlines to set up the nation’s first air traffic control centers in Newark, New Jersey, Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1936, the Bureau assumed control of the three centers, thus establishing the concept of federal control over air traffic control operations at major airports.

Focus Shifts to Safety

In 1938, after a series of high-profile fatal accidents, the federal emphasis shifted to aviation safety with passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act. The law created the politically-independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), with a three-member Air Safety Board. As a forerunner of today’s National Transportation Safety Board, the Air Safety Board began investigating accidents and recommending how they could be prevented.

As a pre-World War II defense measure, the CAA assumed control over air traffic control systems at all airports, including towers at small airports. In the post-war years, the federal government assumed responsibility for air traffic control systems at most airports.

On June 30, 1956, a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon killing all 128 people on the two planes. The crash happened on a sunny day with no other air traffic in the area. The disaster, along with the growing use of jet airliners capable of speeds nearing 500 miles per hour, drove a demand for a more unified federal effort to ensure the safety of the flying public.

Birth of the FAA

On August 23, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act, which transferred the old Civil Aeronautics Authority's functions to a new independent, regulatory Federal Aviation Agency responsible for ensuring the safety of all aspects of non-military aviation. On December 31, 1958, the Federal Aviation Agency began operations with retired Air Force General Elwood "Pete" Quesada serving as its first administrator.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson, believing a single coordinated system for federal regulation of all modes of land, sea and air transportation was needed, directed Congress to create the cabinet-level Department of Transportation (DOT). On April 1, 1967, the DOT began full operation and immediately changed the name of the old Federal Aviation Agency to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). On the same day, the accident investigation function of the old Air Safety Board was transferred to the new National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

FAA: The Next Generation

In 2007, the FAA launched its Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) modernization program intended to make flying safer, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and more predictable, as in more on-time departures and arrivals.

As what the FAA calls “one of the ambitious infrastructure projects in U.S. history,” NextGen promises to create and implement major new technologies and capabilities, rather than merely upgrading aging air travel systems. Some of the improvements expected to come from NextGen aviation include:

  • Fewer travel delays and flight cancellations
  • Reduced passenger travel time
  • Additional flight capacity
  • Reduced fuel consumption and aircraft exhaust emissions
  • Decreased air carrier and FAA operating costs
  • Fewer general aviation injuries, fatalities, and aircraft losses and damages in areas such as Alaska, where radar coverage is limited

According to the FAA, the NextGen plan is about halfway through its multi-year design and implementation program expected to run through 2025 and beyond, depending on continued funding support from Congress. As of 2017, the last year reported by the FAA, the NextGen modernization program has delivered $4.7 billion in benefits to passengers and the airlines.

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Longley, Robert. "About the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/federal-aviation-administration-faa-3321997. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). About the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/federal-aviation-administration-faa-3321997 Longley, Robert. "About the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/federal-aviation-administration-faa-3321997 (accessed June 8, 2023).