In 1990 Public Law 101-508 (49 USC Section 44513) directed the Administrator of the FAA to create the Air Transportation Centers of Excellence (COE) program. The legislation mandated selection criteria which are used to evaluate proposals in support of COE solicitations. Through this legislation the Administrator has the authority to make grants to institutions of higher education to establish and operate regional Air Transportation Centers of Excellence.

Since its inception, the COE program has made a major commitment on the part of the FAA to support multi-year and multi-million dollar research efforts, ensuring coordination and innovation across the university teams that make up the various COEs. This investment has resulted in significant advancements in aviation science, technologies, and technology transfer.

The COE program has included over 70 institutions of higher learning and over 200 industry and government affiliates. Through their collaborative efforts, have conducted research in areas which are critical to the FAA and the flying public.

Established COEs

The Joint Center for Computational Modeling of Aircraft Structures was congressionally mandated COE and was created in 1992. This first COE conducted research in technological areas dealing with fatigue damage, residual life and residual strength estimations, mechanical and composite patch repairs, life enhancement methodologies, and discrete source damage.

In 1994, the COE for Airport Technology (CEAT),originally focused on Airport Pavement Technology R&D, was competitively selected. Airport Technology concentrated in high performance concrete, non-destructive evaluation of pavements, stabilized base materials, structural behavior and modeling, airport pavement design concepts and procedures, and wildlife research.

The COE for Operations Research (NEXTOR) was selected in 1996. In collaboration with the FAA and industry, NEXTOR was formed to perform research in the areas of air traffic management and control, safety data analysis, communications, data collection, distribution, human factors, system performance and assessment measures, and aviation economics. After transitioning from the COE program NEXTOR has continued its research as a self managed program.

In 1997 the COE for Airworthiness Assurance (AACE) was established. This center was created to focus on maintenance, inspection and repair, crashworthiness, propulsion and fuel systems safety technologies, and advance materials.

In 2001 the COE for General Aviation (CGAR) was established to conduct research in the field of general aviation (GA). The COE for GA encompasses all types of aviation not considered military or commercial. The focus areas are airport technology, propulsion and structures, aging aircraft, flight safety, and fire safety as they related to general aviation.

The COE for Aircraft Noise and Aviation Emissions Mitigation (PARTNER) was established in 2003. This COE was formed to perform research on the effects of noise and emissions impacts, noise and emissions abatement flight procedures and technology, compatible land use management, airport operational controls, noise and emissions measurements and health impacts, aviation atmospheric effects, interrelationships between noise and emissions, communication, and continuing education.

Also in 2003 the Joint COE for Advanced Materials (JAMS) was selected by the Administrator. Two university teams came together to form this COE to conduct research in bonded joints processing, structural substantiation, damage tolerance and durability, advanced material forms / processes, flammability and crashworthiness, nanotechnology for composite structures, life management of materials for improved aircraft maintenance practices, and material standardization and shared databases

In 2004 the COE for Airliner Cabin Environment Research (ACER) was formed to ensure the safety, security, and health of all human occupants of aerospace vehicles. Among the targeted technologies are cabin sensor system development, contamination mitigation technology development, air quality incident analysis, airline occupant health issue linkage, and field and laboratory analysis of potential contaminants. . The Center was re-named the COE for Research in the Intermodal Transport Environment (RITE). The Center, in collaboration with the FAA, expanded its scope and now engages in research and development to ensure the safety and health of all human occupants of aircraft as well as other vehicles used in public transportation (e.g., trains, buses, etc.). This partnership seeks to develop tools to understand and mitigate occupant safety and health risks that arise from environmental issues.

In 2005 the COE for Airport Technology (CEAT) completed its ten year evaluation and became and was designated as a member of the COE Alliance. The COE Alliance represents a special designation for a COE consortium once it has proven to be a viable and vibrant member of the aeronautical research community for a period of ten years. In 2010 the COE for Operations Research (NEXTOR) became the second COE consortium to be designated as a member of the COE Alliance.

The COE for Commercial Space Transportation (CST) was selected by the Administrator in 2010. The COE for CST goals fall into four main research areas and those are then broken into multiple sub-areas. The major research areas are: Space Traffic Management & Operations; Space Transportation Operations, Technologies; Human Spaceflight; and Space Transportation Industry Viability.

The progress made by the COE program members and affiliates has enabled the United States to continue to build a safer and more efficient air transportation infrastructure. The FAA has supported over $260M of research and training through grants, contracts, and matching contributions, funding more than 500 research tasks and graduating more than 1,500 Master and Doctoral students in math, science, and engineering. COE scientists have published more than 2,000 articles, reports, and doctoral theses. COEs have made major contributions that have impacted rule making over the past 15 years; members have testified before Congress with their industry affiliates; and they have generated more than$200M in matching funds.