The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has its origins over 100 years ago, having started as the Flight Service system early in the days of aviation. It has since grown to become the US-wide FAA that we know today. This article takes a look at why and how this important institution was created, and how its role has evolved.
Starting the Flight Service stations
Today’s FAA has its origins back with Flight Service stations in the early 1920s. After the First World War, powered flight began to expand in scope, and the Air Mail Act of 1925 started the creation of a commercial flight industry. Flight operations were limited though, with pilots relying on good weather, visual features for navigation, and simple compasses. Accidents were common.
Flight Service stations were started to provide weather and other information to airmail pilots. They operated independently and only in certain locations, with pilots able to contact either by radio or in advance of flights by telephone.
This system became formalized with the introduction of the Air Commerce Act in 1926. This groundbreaking legislation at the time came about largely through demands from the aviation sector. More focus was needed on safety, certification, and nationwide infrastructure for the industry to continue growing. It was originally overseen by the Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce. This became the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1934.
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Transfer to the Civil Aeronautics Authority
The role of the Bureau of Air Commerce gradually expanded over the 1930s. In 1936 it took over the early ATC system (which was started a few years earlier by airlines directly). In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act shifted control away from the Department of Commerce to the newly created Civil Aeronautics Authority.
This was further split in 1940 into the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAA took responsibility for ATC and aircraft and crew safety and certification. The CAB stayed part of the Department of Commerce and took on regulation and enforcement, accident investigation, and airfare regulation.
Civil to Federal control
The CAA and CAB controlled aviation through the Second World War and for many years after. Throughout this time, the use of airports expanded considerably, along with ATC services and the use of radar. Unfortunately, as air traffic expanded, so did accidents and fatalities. A fateful mid-air collision in 1956 (involving a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 aircraft) highlighted the risks that remained.
This led to the transfer of control from civil authorities to a federal one. The Federal Aviation Act was signed in August 1958, and the FAA was born -but then called the Federal Aviation Agency.
The FAA took control of all air safety standards and regulations. It was also tasked with creating a common ATC system for all aircraft, both civilian and military.
In 1967, the US Department of Transport was formed, and the FAA – now renamed as the Federal Aviation Administration – became part of this, along with other transport agencies. At the same time, a new National Transportation Safety Board was formed, and it took over the air crash investigation role of the CAB. The remaining CAB roles (such as airfare regulation) shifted to the FAA.
The FAA today
The setup and role of the FAA remains similar to when it was established in 1967, although its role and impact have expanded as aviation has grown over the years. The deregulation of airfares in 1978 removed this as a responsibility. Its involvement in ATC has increased as well, expanding control and leading to the creation of a separate body within the FAA – the Air Traffic Organization – in 2000. Remits now include drones and commercial space flights. Its role in noise and environmental pollution has also increased over the years.
One major change in recent years is with security. The FAA increasingly took involvement in this throughout the 1960s, especially as aircraft hijackings became more of a problem. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the FAA was involved in the grounding of all aircraft in the US for the first time and the investigations that followed.
In November 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was set up as an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This new agency took on responsibility for public and airport safety.
The FAA’s role and coverage have gradually expanded over the years. There are plenty of other areas of control and regulation that we haven’t covered here – feel free to discuss further in the comments.