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Federal Aviation Act (1958)

Federal Aviation Act (1958)

Douglas B. Harris

Excerpt from the Federal Aviation Act

An Act: To continue the Civil Aeronautics Board as an agency of the United States, to create a Federal Aviation Agency, to provide for the regulation and promotion of civil aviation in such manner as to best foster its development and safety, and to provide for the safe and efficient use of the airspace by both civil and military aircraft, and for other purposes.

The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (P.L. 85-726, 72 Stat. 731) created a Federal Aviation Agency (later called the Federal Aviation Administration; FAA) and empowered it to oversee and regulate safety in the airline industry and control civilian and military use of the airspace over the United States. The authority to regulate air travel and the airline industry is based on Congress's power under Article I, section 8 of the Constitution to regulate inter-state commerce. When the technological advance of air travel became commercially viable and a societal reality, Congress was empowered to regulate the airline industry. Although the Department of Commerce had regulated air travel since the 1920s, in 1938 Congress passed a law creating the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).

Building on the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 reestablished the CAB, transferred its safety regulatory functions to the newly created FAA, and empowered the FAA to take control of all navigable airspace over the United States for both civilian and military purposes. The act provided for an influential Federal Aviation Administrator with broad latitude to implement airline safety regulations. In reconstituting the CAB, the act allowed for the CAB to continue regulating the commercial practices of the airline industry, fare regulations, and accident investigations. Finally, in holding that the Federal Aviation Administrator would have the authority to oversee military use of airspace, the act provided that the president of the United States would mediate jurisdictional conflicts between the Federal Aviation Administrator and military officials.


In the 1950s, technological advances in aviation and a boom in the commercial airline industry crowded the national airspace, increased the speed of commercial airliners, and strained the government's capacity to regulate the safety of air travel. Deeming existing regulations inadequate to meet these demands, advocates for reform argued for the revamping of the federal government's role in regulating and promoting air travel. Although these reformers had been advocating such legislation since the early 1950s, it was not until several highly sensational and tragic aviation accidents occurred that the public and other policymakers perceived the need for new regulation. Most notably, a midair collision over the Grand Canyon provided the short-term rationale for immediate legislative action.

On June 30, 1956, two commercial airliners collided over the Grand Canyon resulting in 128 fatalities. As air travel was becoming increasingly common, this high-profile accident raised public concern, and top policy-makers in Congress responded. In 1957 Congress passed the Airways Modernization Act that established the Airways Modernization Board (AMB) headed by General Elwood Quesada. Legislators were split on the sufficiency of the AMB to meet the long-term demands of aviation safety regulation. Some key legislators thought of the AMB as a temporary organization, whereas other legislators hoped to give the AMB time to work. The number of legislators in favor of delaying further legislative action diminished as another accident spurred lawmakers to quick action.

The collision of a military jet and a commercial airliner in Brunswick, Maryland, on May 20, 1958, not only led to a reconsideration of delaying legislative action, but also impressed upon legislative proponents the need to unify control over both military and civilian use of airspace over the United States. The primary proponent of the Federal Aviation Act was Senator Mike Monroney, a Democrat from Oklahoma. As chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee since its inception in 1955, Monroney had been a frequent critic of existing aviation policy in general and the CAB in particular. The day after the Brunswick collision, Monroney and House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Chairman Oren Harris, Democrat of Arkansas, introduced the Senate and House versions of the Federal Aviation Act.

By June 13, the White House had made its support of the legislation official when President Eisenhower sent a special message to Congress. Citing "recent midair collisions of aircraft occasioning tragic losses of human life," Eisenhower recommended the establishment of the FAA "in which would be consolidated among other things all the essential management functions necessary to support the common needs of our civil and military aviation." With the administration on board, committee consideration of the bill was fast, as the legislation cleared the Senate and House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committees on July 9 and July 14, respectively.

The bill was considered on the Senate floor within a week of being reported out of committee. In floor debate Monroney summarized the need for the bill, arguing that advances in the technology of air travel demanded greater regulation. He said, "The combination of too many airplanes flying at supersonic speed and our entry into the jet air age have made necessary a more modern governmental agency to make use of the technological advances which are occurring in the aviation field." House proponents made many of the same arguments in floor debate in early August. That aviation technology had outstripped existing policy and the capacity of existing governing institutions was a problem many legislators expected to be exacerbated by technological progress in coming years. This point was underscored in legislative debate by Representative John J. Flynt, Jr., a Democrat from Georgia, who claimed to have been in favor of delaying legislative action until he became aware that "the first commercial jet transport may be in operation in the airspace between now and the convening of the 1st session of the 86th Congress.... We feel that it is necessary that this legislation be enacted into law and in operation prior to the time that the first commercial jet airliner takes off loaded with passengers."

Still, the existing regulatory structures and the CAB were not without their defenders, and the new FAA was not without its critics. Senator Edward Thye, Republican of Minnesota, was the chief critic of the Federal Aviation Act on the Senate floor. Thye's objections to the act were wide ranging. Expressing the view that the newly created FAA would be too powerful and unresponsive to the interests of airlines, Thye said, "I am most vitally concerned with the question of whether the bill will virtually set up a dictator over all aviation operations and all the companies which operate commercially." Arguing that the CAB was structured to have greater accountability mechanisms, Thye feared that the act was but a first step toward the elimination of the CAB altogether.

Despite these points of opposition, the Federal Aviation Act passed both the House and Senate by voice vote in the Senate on July 14 and in the House on August 4. To quell some of the concern over the power of the FAA and the loss of CAB authority, legislative proponents of the act in both the House and Senate debates made clear that legislative language encouraging "promotion" of civil aviation was not intended to connote economic promotion of the airline industry. This emphasis most likely was an effort to appease defenders of the CAB who feared that all of its essential functions might be transferred to the FAA. Relatively minor differences were reconciled in conference committee, and the Conference Report passed the House and Senate, again by voice vote, on August 13 and August 11, respectively. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law on August 23, 1958, appointed AMB Chairman Quesada the first FAA Administrator, and transferred, by executive order, AMB's authority to the FAA on November 1.


Generally, the broader public is unaware of the political and policy questions that govern regulatory agencies like the CAB and the FAA. Although the struggles within these narrow policy communities, known by political scientists as "subsystems," can be intense, they rarely draw outside attention. Although a small number of activists and congressional reformers had been pressing for increased regulation of the airline industry, the notable air tragedies over the Grand Canyon and in Brunswick, Maryland, fostered the political environment that led to passage of the Federal Aviation Act. As political scientist Emmette Redford wrote in Democracy and the Administrative State, "The passage of the Federal Aviation Act shows how a subsystem actor, in this instance, Senator Monroney, struggled within the subsystem for stronger rules and roles in safety protection and then was able, because of two accidents, to marshal support from outside the subsystem for amendment of the governing statute."

The FAA continues to function largely as it was designed to by the 1958 act. When the Department of Transportation (DOT) was created in 1967, the Federal Aviation Agency became the Federal Aviation Administration within the DOT. Still, it is notable that opponents' fears that this was a first step toward the elimination of the CAB seem to have materialized. The Transportation Act also transferred CAB's responsibilities to investigate airline accidents to the newly created National Transportation Safety Board. In 1978 the Airline Deregulation Act was enacted in an effort to decrease the amount of federal commercial regulation of the airline industry. As this was the primary function of the CAB after the 1958 Federal Aviation Act, airline deregulation eventually led to the demise of the CAB in 1985 under the Civil Aeronautics Board Sunset Act of 1984.

See also: Civil Aeronautics Act .


Redford, Emmette S. Congress Passes the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1961.

Redford, Emmette S. Democracy in the Administrative State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.


Federal Aviation Administration. <>.

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