Aviation Regulatory Agencies

views updated


Aviation regulatory agencies are charged with oversight of the aviation industry. Such agencies are primarily governmental or international organizations. The issue of safety is central to any such agency: Not only must the aviation industry be supervised, passenger aircraft must also be certified safe. How should this supervision and certification be accomplished? Is the most effective regulation done with a centralized system? What are the alternatives? What standards should be used? Aviation regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, have been established to address these issues.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in its draft Flight Plan 2004–2008, states that it regulates more than half of all air traffic. The FAA also certifies more than seventy percent of all large jet aircraft. Most countries around the world have their own civil aviation authorities to devise and implement regulations within their respective territories, but the FAA provides indirect or direct assistance to 129 countries to help improve their air traffic control systems. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) represents 188 independent civil aviation authorities, but the FAA is the largest intellectual and financial ICAO contributor.

History of the FAA

During World War I, the U.S. government expanded the aviation manufacturing industry, and Congress funded a postal program that would serve as the model for commercial air operations. In the early 1920s, many argued for federal regulation of the nascent commercial aviation sector to ensure public confidence, but others distrusted the government or wanted states to regulate aviation. Must the aviation industry be regulated? Prior to 1926, flyers of airplanes required no pilot's license, nor a license to carry passengers or materials, and took lessons from unlicensed schools or individuals. They generally took off and landed wherever they pleased (Komons 1978). But that year U. S. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Air Commerce Act (ACA) and federal oversight began under the direction of the Department of Commerce, which established safety standards and certification procedures for pilots and aircraft. The aviation industry was growing quickly and problems were being encountered with safety, aircraft route allocations, and airline formation. But was the public interest being protected or were the interests of the airline industry being served?

The response to this question was the 1938 Civil Aeronautics Act that transferred Federal civil aviation responsibilities to the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), an independent agency. In 1940, the CAA was split into two agencies: One was the Civil Aeronautics Administration, responsible for air traffic control (ATC), airperson and aircraft certification, safety enforcement, and airway development. The other was the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which became the specialized agency to regulate the airline industry. It was charged with assigning routes to air carriers and controlling the fares charged. In 1958 the Federal Aviation Act created the Federal Aviation Agency, which in 1996 was renamed the Federal Aviation Administration. The passage of this act was prompted by the development of jet airliners and a series of midair collisions, suggesting that greater centralization and standardization were necessary to ensure safety. The FAA absorbed the functions of both the CAA and the CAB (although CAB continued to exercise economic regulations of airlines until 1978) and acquired sole responsibility to operate a national ATC system and develop, initiate, and monitor standardized safety requirements for air travel. The FAA is charged with promoting safety and security and developing and maintaining an air traffic management system that is efficient, secure, and safe.


Is the FAA effective in exercising its responsibilities? Some have argued that the FAA is the cause of current problems in the United States because it resists change. Some of these problems are specific, such as runway incursions (critics maintain that the technology for surface navigation and communications has been inadequately developed), whereas others are more systematic, such as management issues that have led to cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls. According to a Government Accounting Office Report it takes the FAA five to seven years to implement meaningful and lasting responses to challenges posed by increased capacity, safety, efficiency, and other demands.

In 1978 the Airline Deregulation Act ended the CAB, began the removal of government control, and opened the deregulated passenger air transport industry to market forces. Eventually, deregulation would benefit the consumer with lower ticket prices. By 1988 the number of people working in the industry had increased by thirty-two percent, with air traffic up by fifty-five percent and costs down seventeen percent. In 1998 ticket prices had been reduced by twenty percent and passenger numbers increased from 275 million to 600 million compared to ten years earlier.

Airline deregulation is nevertheless controversial (see Bailey et al. 1985). Deregulation and economic competition directly contributed to the bankruptcy of several major airlines. Prior to September 11, 2001, the projections were for the airline industry to grow 5 to 7 percent per year. Air travel declined over the next few years, putting airlines and aircraft manufacturers on the financial edge. With increasing economic pressures and rising fuel prices, the pressure exists to cut costs and take greater risks. It is the job of the FAA to insure that safety is not compromised.

Technology and Safety Regulations

People look to technology to solve many problems associated with the crowded ATC system. One concept being considered is the free flight system. Currently, major airlines use a hub and spoke model. Small commuter airlines feed into larger airports that allow major airlines to have a higher passenger density and reduce costs. In contrast, a free flight system allows people to fly direct from any nearby, small airport to an airport near their destination. This creates complexity and pushes the limits of technology, as aircraft will no longer use common routes. Only sophisticated navigation equipment and procedures would make this possible. The Global Positioning System (GPS) would allow ATC to track each airplane. Benefits of implementing such a free flight system would include time savings on trips of approximately 400 miles in length (Czajkowski 2002). However, one possible drawback is increased travel costs, which may further restrict air travel to the wealthy. This free flight concept might also include an airplane design such as the Advanced Flying Automobile that would make personal flights accessible to those who could afford the technology.

The FAA often partners with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on issues of technology development, including innovations to improve aging aircraft, prevent accidents caused by weather, and improve air traffic control operations. Collision avoidance is also being researched by the NASA Dryden Research Center. Early twenty-first century technology makes it possible for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to fly in airspace with piloted aircraft (Degaspari 2003). Whether this will be allowed is up to the FAA. The FAA makes all final decisions concerning airspace, aircraft certification, aircrew certification, and airports. The main goal for these decisions is to ensure safety, but the FAA must also take technological and economic factors into consideration. Many technologies are not mature enough or the expense to the aviation industry is prohibitive. Decisions are made most rapidly when the public demands action due to safety concerns. However, swift decisions sometimes generate more controversy in the long term.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), human error has accounted for the greatest percentage of aviation accidents since the 1950s. Furthermore, increasing capacity and technological complexity at all levels of the aviation industry can exacerbate human error by introducing demands on limited cognitive capacities. Thus, the most important technological improvements to aircraft and ATC systems are those that can minimize human error. This also means that training and human resource management may be the best investment for regulatory agencies to fulfill their goal of improved safety. Regulatory agencies are also faced with a vast safety discrepancy between the top twenty-five airlines with the best safety records and the bottom twenty-five airlines with the worst. This suggests that the technologies and human resource management systems already exist to ensure greater safety. The challenge is in transferring these strategies and capabilities to other airlines and enforcing strict compliance with safety regulations by all airlines.

This raises the issue that not all segments of the aviation industry are regulated by the same set of standard rules. For example, general aviation (flights that are on-demand, that is, not routinely scheduled) accounts for seventy-seven percent of all flights in the United States, including the majority of pilot training flights. The bulk of fatalities occur in the general aviation sector, and the accident rate is many times greater than in the commercial sector. Both the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the FAA have different regulations for general aviation. New regulations were put in place after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, because some of the terrorists utilized general aviation flight schools to learn how to steer aircraft. The seventeen general aviation associations comprising the General Aviation Coalition often work closely with regulatory agencies in crafting rules and best practice procedures.

Another sector of the aviation industry is ultralight aircraft, which are light weight (less than 150 lbs if not powered and less than 254 lbs if powered), single occupant, low-speed, recreational aircraft. The ultralight movement formed in the 1970s as operators began to attach small engines to foot launched hang gliders. In 1982, the FAA implemented ultralight regulations, and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) develops and administers ultralight self-regulation programs.

Future Regulation

The FAA draft Flight Plan 2004-2008 outlines four goals. The first is increased safety, a top public-interest priority and economic necessity. People will fly only if they feel safe and are confident in the system. Increased capacity is the second goal: More passengers must be able to move quickly and efficiently through the system. The third goal is improved international partnerships to promote and enhance safety. The FAA works with other regulatory organizations such as the ICAO, the European Aviation Safety Agency, and the North American Aviation Trilateral. Lastly, the FAA seeks organizational excellence in all areas: strong leadership, fiscal responsibility, and performance-based management. The FAA also needs to simplify and clarify technical issues for the general public.

The challenges faced by the FAA and other aviation regulatory agencies may nevertheless inhibit achievement of such goals. Airline and aircraft manufacturing industries are having financial difficulties, and are thus reluctant to equip their aircraft with the latest technology to improve safety. If the technology for improved safety exists, should it be required on aircraft? This is a decision usually left to the FAA. An example illustrating this decision process is the post-2001 reinforcement of cockpit doors. An FAA regulation required the modifications, but the implementation time frame made the request quite reasonable. Most everyone could see the benefit of stronger cockpit doors and airlines agreed to spend the money. Some critics doubted it was enough to deter terrorists. The same is true of the decision to allow pilots to carry weapons in the cockpit. Critics argue that inexperience with handguns makes their use by pilots dangerous. But the FAA has allowed pilots to carry weapons under specific guidelines.

Although safety is a key element of the FAA Flight Plan 2004–2008 there are questions about whether it is doing everything possible. Former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey has stated that flying in a commercial aircraft is forty times safer than driving a car, but that does not clarify whether that level of safety is high enough to secure public trust. Prior to 2001, the FAA had the responsibility to deliver a safe system for passengers, not just a safe aircraft and competent pilot. The terrorist attacks highlighted several errors in airport security. Shortly after the attacks, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) was formed and given the responsibility of protecting all transportation modes from terrorism and other criminal threats. Much money and effort has been expended to improve security at major airports. One result is increased passenger processing time before takeoff, which has resulted in many new federal security workers being added to the government payroll.

The FAA is also responsible for certification of new aircraft and engines. Airbus and Boeing are proposing the Airbus 380 and the 7E7, respectively, as large aircraft replacements for current civilian airliners. The Airbus 380, first shown to the public on January 18, 2005, will carry 550 people and have wingspans at the maximum allowable specification for current airport terminal requirements. Other designs are capable of achieving supersonic speeds that will require minimizing the shock wave generated by those aircraft. Should such aircraft be allowed to fly over populated areas? The original supersonic airliner, Concorde, was not allowed to fly supersonically over populated areas. Again, the FAA makes the final decision.

The FAA has the oversight of environmental issues concerning aircraft engines. One issue is noise pollution. Another is particulate emissions, which pollute the areas surrounding airports. While at altitude, emissions of NOx and CO2 are blamed for depleting the ozone layer and contributing to global climate change. The FAA has the power to regulate the concentrations of these substances found in engine exhaust emissions and is also able to modify the limits when target goals are not reached.

One major question is whether the FAA should be privatized. Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand have already made this step. The advantages are clear in terms of possible cost savings to the government, but it is less clear if privatization is in the best interest of the customer. Many argue that the costs to the consumer will increase to pay for improvements to the system.

Aviation regulatory agencies are one response to the social and environmental dilemmas posed by aviation technologies. The public has come to rely on organizations such as the FAA to make decisions concerning equipment and cost which directly impact passenger safety. Is the FAA acting in the interests of the passenger and government or are they easily influenced by pressure groups from the aviation industry? Safety is the most important concern for air travel, but the public seems to have a blind trust in these agencies. The public should be more involved in these decisions, especially those concerning safety.


SEE ALSO Airplanes;Global Positioning System; Regulation; Safety Engineering Practices;Security;Science, Technology, and Law;Terrorism.


Bailey, Elizabeth E., David R. Graham, and Daniel P. Kaplan. (1985). Deregulating the Airlines (Regulation of Economic Activity). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cleveland, Paul A., and Jared R. Price. (2003). "The Failure of Federal Aviation Administration Regulation." Independent Review 8(1): 53–64.

Czajkowski, Mike. (2002). Benefits of Door-to-Door Travel Time Reduction to US Economy. San Diego, CA: 2000 World Aviation Congress, October 10–12, 2000.

Degaspari, John. (2003). "Flying Blind." Mechanical Engineering 125 (7): 10–12.

Komons, Nick. (1978). Bonfires to Beacons: Federal Civil Aviation Policy under the Air Commerce Act, 1926–1938. Washington DC: DOT/FAA.

Oster, Clinton V., Jr.; C. Kurt Zorn; and John S. Strong. (1992). Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation Safety in a Changing World. Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wells, Alexander T. (2004). Commercial Aviation Safety. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Boeing. (2003). "Jetliner Safety: Government's Role in Aviation Safety." Available from http://www.boeing.com/commercial/safety/pf/pf_government_role.html.

Federal Aviation Administration: Draft Flight Plan 2004–2008. Available from http://www.faa.gov/AboutFAA/FlightPlan.cfm.

Government Accountability Office (GAO). (2003). "Reform Effort Requires a More Strategic Result." February, GAO-03-156. Available from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d03156.pdf.

Thierer, Adam D. (1998) "20th Anniversary of Airline Deregulation: Cause for Celebration, Not Re-Regulation." The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder Executive Summary, No. 1173, April 22. Available from http://www.heritage.org/Research/Regulation/BG1173.cfm.

About this article

Aviation Regulatory Agencies

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article