by Steve Ruffin
“Even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered.” (Aristotle)
The Federal Aviation Administration assumed its current status on April 1, 1967, when it shed the title of “Federal Aviation Agency” and became a part of the newly formed Department of Transportation. Today, it is one of the nation’s largest and most important regulatory agencies. With a budget of more than $14 billion and a force of nearly 45,000 employees, its far-reaching responsibilities have become nearly incomprehensibly wide in scope.
Federal regulation of aviation has not always been the massive and powerful agency it is today, however; nor did it begin in 1967. Starting four decades prior to that, the U.S. Government responded again and again to a rapidly changing world by enacting a complex succession of legislative acts. Those statutes created the alphabet-soup lineage of aviation regulatory agencies that ultimately became today’s FAA. This period of evolution in the development of our nation’s regulation of the skies was indeed “a time for laws.”
The Air Commerce Act of 1926 and the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce (1926-1934)
Federal control of aviation activities in the U.S. officially began in 1926 when the Air Commerce Act of that year became Public Law 69-254. This first real attempt by the government to regulate the use of its airspace resulted in the formation of the “Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce.” This agency published the nation’s first Federal air regulations. Among other provisions, these directives required for the first time formal licensing and certification for certain categories of aircraft, pilots, and mechanics. Equally important, they began the essential process of defining the rules of the air.
The Aeronautics Branch began operations in 1927 with a relatively minuscule budget of only $550,000. This was, however, a time of nearly unsurpassed aviation popularity and technical innovation—driven by the many record-setting flights that uniquely distinguished this era. As a reflection of this unprecedented growth in aviation, annual appropriations for the Aeronautics Branch had expanded nearly twenty-fold to more than $10 million by 1932. This increased funding resulted in numerous initiatives that greatly advanced the cause of aviation safety. These included the establishment of navigational airways, improvement of radio communications, introduction of new teletype technology to transmit weather updates instantly, and creation of a formal Aircraft Accident Board to investigate mishaps in the interest of improving aviation safety.
The Bureau of Air Commerce (1934-1938) and Airmail Act of 1934
By 1934, the responsibilities of the Aeronautics Branch had increased to the point where it was judged worthy of “bureau” status; consequently, it became the “Bureau of Air Commerce.” Also by this time, however, the full effect of the Great Depression was being felt, not only in civil aviation, but throughout the nation. Because of this, appropriations for the new Bureau began to shrink accordingly. It would be 1938 before Federal funding for aviation finally crept its way back up to the $10 million level of 1932.
During these lean Depression years, other events were occurring in the aviation world that would significantly affect the future of governmental aviation oversight. One of the most notable of these was the so-called Airmail Scandal of 1934. This began when a Senate investigating committee revealed that airmail contracts awarded to civilian aviation companies had been improperly awarded without competitive bidding. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by canceling all existing contracts and ordering the Army Air Corps to take over the job of flying the mail.
Unfortunately, this move led to an even greater fiasco. Air Corps pilot training and equipment proved unsuitable for the highly specialized—and dangerous—type of round-the-clock, all-weather flying required to deliver the mail on schedule. Within a matter of weeks, 10 Army aviators had crashed to their deaths, four of them on a single day, March 9th. The next day, an angry and embarrassed President Roosevelt summarily ordered the Army to suspend airmail operations.
This double-barreled scandal highlighted, more than anything else, the need for greater governmental involvement in both civil and military aviation. Congress quickly reacted by passing the Airmail Act of 1934. This important piece of legislation authorized the President to appoint a commission to make recommendations for a comprehensive policy to govern all aspects of aviation in the U.S. For the first time, Federal aviation regulation was about to gain its independence.
The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Civil Aeronautics Authority (1938-1940)
The “Federal Aviation Commission” created by the Airmail Act soon initiated a course of events that led to the Civil Aeronautics Act. This sweeping legislation, which became law on June 23, 1938, transferred Federal regulation of civil aviation from the Department of Commerce to a newly formed independent agency. This wide-ranging agency, named the “Civil Aeronautics Authority,” was created to develop a commercial air transportation system that would serve not only civil aviation, but also the postal service and the military.
The Authority consisted of three parts, each operating independently of the others. The first element was a five-member committee empowered with quasi-legislative and judicial functions to help ensure safety and the economic regulation of civil aviation. The second element of the triad, the “Civil Aeronautics Administrator,” would act as an independent presidential agent tasked with overseeing the executive and operational aspects of the Authority. The third part of the new agency was an independent three-member “Air Safety Board.” It was granted quasi-judicial powers to investigate aircraft accidents and make recommendations to improve air safety.
The Civil Aeronautics Board and Civil Aeronautics Administration (1940-1958)
The Civil Aeronautics Authority, for all its complexity and careful planning, was destined to be short-lived. On June 30, 1940, only two years after its establishment, it was transferred back to the Department of Commerce. The five-member board became the “Civil Aeronautics Board” (CAB) and the functions of the Administrator became the “Civil Aeronautics Administration” (CAA). The Air Safety Board was eliminated and its accident investigations functions transferred to the CAB.
The creation of the new CAB/CAA was accompanied over the next two years by a nearly ten-fold increase in appropriations: from $26 million in 1940 to $225 million in 1942. Much of this increased funding was specifically allocated for the construction, repair, and improvement of the nation’s airports. With war clouds hovering on the horizon, these measures—collectively called the “Development of Landing Areas for National Defense” (DLAND)—were determined essential for the nation’s security. Under this program, $383 million were eventually spent on a total of 535 airports.
In 1941, the CAA began operating control towers, almost all of which had previously been operated locally. By 1944, the number of CAA-operated towers peaked at 115. As directed by an executive order issued by President Roosevelt just six days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Secretary of War took control of any civil aviation system he deemed necessary for defense purposes. Consequently, for the remainder of the war the CAA served primarily to support the nation’s wartime effort.
During the years after World War II, the CAA and CAB remained extremely active. While weathering several additional reorganizations, the agencies continued to implement policies aimed at developing all aspects of civil aviation. These included initiatives to improve such functions as air traffic control and airports; navigational, landing, and communication aids; airline operation and safety; pilot training, testing, and licensing; aircraft certification; accident investigations; technological research; and publication of written guidelines.
The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and the Federal Aviation Agency
During the 18-year lifespan of the CAA, air traffic volume expanded beyond all expectations. Between 1945 and 1958, it more than doubled and for the first time exceeded both transcontinental railroad and transatlantic ship travel. As a consequence, airways had become congested to the point of saturation—and beyond. Simultaneously, with aviation moving into the jet age, the aircraft that were now crowding the airways were carrying more passengers and flying ever faster. The net effect was a sky that had become too crowded to fly through safely.
Meanwhile, the CAA—for all its worthy initiatives during its tenure—was forced to operate on a downscaled postwar budget. This left it inadequately funded and understaffed. Consequently, it was unable to keep up with the demands of the increasingly crowded skies. As a result, no less than 65 deadly midair collisions occurred within U.S. airspace during the years 1950-55 alone. Most disturbingly, the situation showed few signs of improving. The growing number of these tragic and highly publicized crashes could no longer be overlooked. It had become dreadfully clear that improvements in air traffic control and aviation safety in general were desperately needed—and soon.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to the emergency by forming an Aviation Facilities Study Group. Acting on its recommendation, in February 1956 he appointed Edward P. Curtis to formulate a comprehensive plan to improve aviation safety. Additional urgency was soon given to his task in the form of a particularly deadly and well-publicized midair collision.
On the morning of June 30, 1956, a Trans World Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation airliner with 70 people aboard took off from Los Angeles International airport en route to Kansas City. Just three minutes later, a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 carrying 58 passengers and crew lifted off from the same airport, heading for Chicago. An hour and a half later, these two aircraft inexplicably collided over the Grand Canyon, destroying both aircraft and killing all 128 people aboard the two airliners.
Spurred on by this most recent air disaster, Curtis reported to the President on May 10, 1957, what had already become obvious: airspace congestion was “a crisis in the making.” He recommended the creation of an independent aviation agency that could handle the needs of both military and civil aviation. President Eisenhower complied with this recommendation by naming retired Air Force Lt.Gen. Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada as his special assistant for aviation affairs. Soon afterward, the Airways Modernization Act of 1957 created the Airways Modernization Board, with Quesada as chairman. This Board was tasked with developing a navigation and air traffic control system that would serve both civil and military aviation alike. Unfortunately, it would take time and more tragedy to set these wheels of progress in motion.
As if more impetus to improve air traffic control was needed, two additional high‑profile midair collisions occurred within the space of a month, causing the loss of four aircraft and the deaths of 61 air travelers. On April 21, 1958, a U.S. Air Force jet fighter collided with a United Air Lines DC-7 over Nevada, killing all those aboard both aircraft. And then on May 20, a military trainer slammed into a Capital Airlines Viscount over Maryland. Only one person survived this accident. Much of the blame for these collisions pointed to one major factor: military and civilian aircraft flying in the same airspace inexplicably were still being controlled by separate air traffic control systems.
On the heels of these and the many previous tragic accidents caused by inadequate air traffic control, Congressional action to improve flight safety was uncharacteristically swift. The very next day after the May 20th midair collision, a bill to create what would once more be an independent Federal aviation agency was introduced in Congress. On August 23, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (Public Law 85-726) into law. This effectively overturned all previous statutes and presidential reorganizations that governed civil aviation. The functions of these previous laws, which had over the last 30 years been spread throughout the Federal government, were transferred to the newly formed “Federal Aviation Agency” and the still-existent CAB, whose previous administrative ties to the Department of Commerce were at long last severed. The CAB retained its responsibility for accident investigations and air transportation regulations, but most of its involvement with safety regulations and enforcement were transferred to the new, independent, and powerful FAA. Not of least importance, the new agency was also tasked with the responsibility for developing a common civilian and military system for air traffic control and navigation. General Quesada took the oath as the first Administrator of the new FAA on November 1, 1958, and the agency became fully operational on December 31, 1958.
The Federal Aviation Agency functioned for the next eight years under three Administrators: Quesada (1958-61), Najeeb E. Halaby (1961-65), and William F. McKee (1965-68). With appropriations starting at $550 million in 1959 and increasing yearly to nearly $1 billion by 1966, the FAA possessed the resources to put into effect many of the improvements needed to increase aviation safety.
The Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and Creation of the Federal Aviation Administration
The final name change of the nation’s Federal aviation regulatory body became effective on April 1, 1967. On this date, the newly established Department of Transportation began operations, and as part of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, the Federal Aviation Agency became the “Federal Aviation Administration.” As implied by the name change, the FAA ceased operating as an independent agency reporting directly to the President, to become one of five major transportation organizations within the new Department. Simultaneously, the CAB’s accident investigation responsibilities were transferred to the newly created National Transportation Safety Board.
Over the five decades since its creation, the FAA—led by its 14 successive Administrators to date—has continued to evolve with the times. It has successfully weathered a hijacking epidemic, a major labor strike, several military conflicts, numerous administrative reorganizations, an unprecedented technological revolution, the extension of its scope of responsibility to commercial space transportation, and most recently, the fallout from the devastating terrorist air attacks of September 11, 2001, that sparked the nation’s current war on terror.
The extensive range of responsibilities of today’s FAA is nearly overwhelming. These include:
- Monitoring the certification and licensing of some 1.3 million airmen and other aviation personnel
- The ongoing certification of a quarter of a million active aircraft
- Oversight of some 20,000 airports;
- Air traffic control of approximately 200,000 takeoffs and landings daily;
- Helping to ensure the safety of more than half a billion air passengers yearly;
- Maintaining a comprehensive program of education and research in the pursuit of increased aviation and aerospace safety;
- Monitoring noise, pollution, and other environmental issues associated with aviation;
- Creating, updating, and publishing all Federal regulations and policies, educational materials, and other printed matter relating to civil and military aviation.
There can be no mistake: the effective organization that comprises today’s FAA bears little resemblance to its ancestors of the past eight decades since 1926. Just as future developments in technology and world politics are inevitable, so are even more changes in the nation’s laws governing aviation regulation. Accordingly, the FAA will continue to evolve with the times. The one thing that will never change, however, is the FAA’s most fundamental responsibility of keeping America’s skies safe. Its present-day mission of providing the “safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world” still reflects the spirit of all the nation’s aviation regulatory agencies that preceded it.