A Brief History of the FAA

The modern age of powered flight began in 1903 when Orville Wright made the first sustained, powered flight on December 17 in a plane he and his brother Wilbur built. This twelve-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane in 1905 and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines. As a result, the early 20th century witnessed myriad aviation developments as new planes and technologies entered service. During World War I, the airplane also proved its effectiveness as a military tool and, with the advent of early airmail service, showed great promise for commercial applications.

Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business. Flying conditions proved difficult since the only navigation devices available to most pilots were magnetic compasses. Pilots flew 200 to 500 feet above ground so they could navigate by roads and railways. Low visibility and night landings were made using bonfires on the field as lighting. Fatal accidents were routine.

The Air Mail Act of 1925 facilitated the creation of a profitable commercial airline industry, and airline companies such as Pan American Airways, Western Air Express, and Ford Air Transport Service began scheduled commercial passenger service. By the mid-1930s, the four major domestic airlines that dominated commercial travel for most of the 20th century began operations: United, American, Eastern, and Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA).

As air travel increased, some airport operators, hoping to improve safety, began providing an early form of air traffic control (ATC) based on visual signals. Early controllers stood on the field and waved flags to communicate with pilots. Archie League, the system's first flagmen, began work in the late 1920s at the airfield in St. Louis, Missouri.

Origins of the FAA

Aviation industry leaders believed the airplane could not reach its full commercial potential without federal action to improve and maintain safety standards. At their urging, the Air Commerce Act was passed in 1926. This landmark legislation charged the Secretary of Commerce with fostering air commerce, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certifying aircraft, establishing airways, and operating and maintaining aids to air navigation. A new Aeronautics Branch in the Department of Commerce assumed primary responsibility for aviation oversight, and William P. MacCracken, Jr., became its first director.

In 1934, the Department of Commerce renamed the Aeronautics Branch the Bureau of Air Commerce to reflect the growing importance of aviation to the nation. In one of its first acts, the Bureau encouraged a group of airlines to establish the first air traffic control centers (Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois) to provide en route air traffic control. In 1936, the Bureau took over these centers. Early en route controllers tracked the position of planes using maps and blackboards and little boat-shaped weights that came to be called "shrimp boats." They had no direct radio link with aircraft, but used telephones to stay in touch with airline dispatchers, airway radio operators, and airport traffic controllers. Although en route ATC became a federal responsibility, local government authorities continued to operate airport towers. While the Department of Commerce worked to improve aviation safety, a number of high profile accidents called the department's oversight responsibilities into question. A 1931 crash that killed all on board, including popular University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, elicited public calls for greater federal oversight of aviation safety. Four years later, a DC-2 crash killed U.S. Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico.

To ensure a federal focus on aviation safety, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act in 1938. The legislation established the independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), with a three-member Air Safety Board that would conduct accident investigations and recommend ways of preventing accidents. The legislation also expanded the government's role in civil aviation by giving CAA power to regulate airline fares and determine the routes individual carriers served. In 1940, President Roosevelt split the CAA into two agencies, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which went back to the Department of Commerce, and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The offshoot of the original CAA retained responsibility for ATC, airman and aircraft certification, safety enforcement, and airway development. CAB responsibilities included safety rulemaking, accident investigation, and economic regulation of the airlines.

On the eve of America's entry into World War II, for defense purposes, CAA extended its ATC system to include operation of airport towers. In the postwar era, ATC became a permanent federal responsibility at most airports. The postwar era also witnessed the advent of commercial jets. The British Overseas Aircraft Corporation introduced the first commercial jet service in 1952. The 36-seat Comet flew at 480 miles per hour. The top cruising speed of the DC-3 piston aircraft, in comparison, was about 180 miles per hour. By the mid-1950s, U.S. companies began designing and building their own jet airliners.

On June 30, 1956, a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon, Arizona, killing all 128 occupants of the two airplanes. The collision occurred while the aircraft were flying under visual flight rules in uncongested airspace. The accident dramatized the fact that, even though U.S. air traffic had more than doubled since the end of World War II, little had been done to mitigate the risk of midair collisions.

Birth of Federal Aviation Agency

On May 21, 1958, Senator A. S. "Mike" Monroney (D-OK) introduced a bill to create an independent Federal Aviation Agency to provide for the safe and efficient use of national airspace. Two months later, on August 23, 1958, the President signed the Federal Aviation Act, which transferred the Civil Aeronautics Authority's functions to a new independent Federal Aviation Agency responsible for civil aviation safety. Although the Federal Aviation Agency technically came into existence with the passage of the act, it actually assumed its functions in stages. Under the provisions of the act, the Federal Aviation Agency would begin operations 60 days after the appointment of the first Federal Aviation Agency Administrator. On November 1, 1958, retired Air Force General Elwood "Pete" Quesada became the first Federal Aviation Agency Administrator. Sixty days later, on December 31, the Federal Aviation Agency began operations.

With no dedicated office space for the Federal Aviation Agency, employees of the growing agency were housed in several widely dispersed buildings around Washington, DC, including some "temporary" buildings of World War II vintage. The Federal Aviation Agency worked to obtain a headquarters building to consolidate employees in one location, and on November 22, 1963, the Federal Aviation Agency's Washington headquarters staff began moving into the newly completed Federal Office Building 10A, at 800 Independence Avenue, SW. Excitement about the new building quickly evaporated on move day as employees heard the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Texas.

From Agency to Administration

President Johnson, concerned about the lack of a coordinated transportation system, believed a single department was needed to develop and carry out comprehensive transportation policies and programs across all transportation modes. In 1966, Congress authorized the creation of a cabinet department that would combine major federal transportation responsibilities. This new Department of Transportation (DOT) began full operations on April l, 1967. On that day, the Federal Aviation Agency became one of several modal organizations within DOT and received a new name, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). At the same time, CAB's accident investigation function was transferred to the new National Transportation Safety Board.

Labor Organizes

In January 1968, New York controllers formed an employee organization, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO. Within six months, PATCO had a national membership of over 5,000 controllers. To highlight difficult working conditions and growing national airspace system (NAS) congestion, in July 1968, the PATCO chairman announced "Operation Air Safety," which he described as a campaign to maintain FAA prescribed separation standards between aircraft. A period of discord between management and PATCO culminated in a 1970 "sickout" by 3,000 controllers. Although controllers subsequently gained additional wage and retirement benefits, tensions between the union and management did not ease.

In February 1972, the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS) became the exclusive representative for all flight service station specialists, those controllers who supported general aviation pilots. FAA and NAATS concluded an agency-wide collective bargaining agreement on June 1, 1972, the first such contract between FAA and a national labor organization.

Evolving Duties

Almost from its creation, the agency found itself faced with a number of unexpected challenges. In 1961, for example, the first series of aircraft hijackings in the U.S. occurred. In August of that year, the federal government began employing armed guards, border patrolmen recruited from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, on civilian planes. In September, President Kennedy signed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, which made it a crime to hijack an aircraft, interfere with an active flight crew, or carry a dangerous weapon aboard an air carrier aircraft. To help enforce the act, a special corps of FAA safety inspectors began training for duty aboard airline flights. In March 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy swore in FAA's first "peace officers," as special U.S. deputy marshals. These men worked as safety inspectors for the FAA flight standards organization and carried out their role as armed marshals on flights only when specifically requested to do so.

FAA responsibilities increased even more in the late 1960s. An economic boom brought with it growing concerns about pollution and noise. Aviation, on the cutting edge of technological innovation, became an early area of environmental concern for the public, especially as more and more airplanes traversed the NAS. In 1968, Congress vested in FAA's Administrator the power to prescribe aircraft noise standards.

With continued growth in the nation's airspace, it quickly became evident that airport safety and capacity had to be increased to prevent system delays. Between mid-1959 and mid-1969, the number of aircraft operations at FAA's ATC towers had increased by 112 percent. Schedule delays cost the air carriers millions of dollars annually, not to mention the cost to passengers over and above inconvenience and discomfort. The Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970 placed the agency in charge of a new airport aid program funded by a special aviation trust fund and made FAA responsible for safety certification of airports served by air carriers.

Air Traffic Control Automation

Realizing the need for continued ATC system modernization to keep up with technological developments, FAA began modernizing the NAS in the mid-1960s. The civilian ATC system being replaced by NAS En Route Stage A was essentially a manually operated system employing radar, general purpose computers, radio communications, and air traffic controllers. For terminal airspace, the FAA was developing the automated radar traffic control system (ARTS).

To help monitor and even restrict flights moving from one air route traffic control center to another, FAA established the Central Flow Control Facility at its Headquarters. Opened in April 1970, the new facility collected and correlated systemwide air traffic and weather data, detected potential trouble spots, and suggested solutions. On July 29, FAA established the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center to integrate the functions of the Central Flow Control Facility, Airport Reservation Office, the Air Traffic Service Contingency Command Post, and Central Altitude Reservation Facility.


The Airline Deregulation Act, signed on October 24, 1978, created a highly competitive airline industry. Deregulation increased FAA workload exponentially. The FAA had to certify every new airline, and there were hundreds of applications after deregulation that FAA had to review and approve or disapprove. In the immediate years after the deregulation act, FAA flight standards and other offices focused primarily on the new applicants.

By the time airline deregulation became law, FAA had achieved a semi-automated air traffic control system based on a marriage of radar and computer technology. Despite its effectiveness, however, the air traffic control system required enhancement to keep pace with the increased volumes of traffic that resulted from the new, deregulated environment.

Labor Unrest

The labor contract between FAA and PATCO expired in March 1981. Formal contract negotiations had begun in February, but those ended after 37 negotiating sessions. Informal talks, however, continued until June 17, when PATCO rejected a Reagan Administration contract proposal. After the failure of last minute negotiations, on August 3, approximately 12,300 members of the 15,000-member PATCO went on strike, grounding about 35 percent of the nation's 14,200 daily commercial flights. Approximately four hours after the strike began, President Reagan issued the strikers a firm ultimatum – return to work within 48 hours or face permanent dismissal. After expiration of the grace period, FAA fired approximately 11,400 controllers. Most of those fired appealed the action, and FAA eventually reinstated 440 as a result of their appeals.

The strike and dismissals drastically curtailed FAA's controller workforce. To keep the airways open, approximately 3,000 air traffic controller supervisory personnel worked at controlling traffic. FAA assigned assistants to support the controllers, and accelerated the hiring and training of new air traffic personnel. Military controllers arrived at FAA facilities soon after the strike began, and about 800 were ultimately assigned to the agency.

In the aftermath of the strike, PATCO disbanded and the controllers remained without a union until June 19, 1987, when the National Air Traffic Controllers Association became the exclusive representative of terminal and center controllers.

During this time, FAA electronics technicians unionized. On December 29, 1981, the Professional Airway Systems Specialists (PASS) became the exclusive representative of the technicians. FAA and PASS concluded their first national labor agreement during fiscal year 1984.

Technological Innovation

Aviation system disruptions in the aftermath of the PATCO strike led many in FAA to come to the realization that the agency needed a systematic, long-term plan for modernization. In January 1982, FAA publicly released the first annual National Airspace System (NAS) Plan, a comprehensive 20-year blueprint for a state-of-the-art traffic control and air navigation system to accommodate projected growth in air travel.

As the modernization program evolved, problems in developing ambitious automation systems prompted a change in strategy. FAA shifted its emphasis from the advanced automation system toward enhancing the ATC system through more manageable, step-by-step improvements through the new Free Flight program. At the same time, the agency worked to speed the application of the Global Positioning System satellite technology to civil aeronautics.

In February 1991, FAA replaced the NAS Plan with the more comprehensive Capital Investment Plan. The new plan incorporated the NAS plan projects and included higher levels of automation as well as new radar, communications, and weather forecasting systems.

FAA also addressed a wide variety of technical issues as the rapid evolution of aeronautics continued. The Aviation Safety Research Act of 1988, for example, mandated greater emphasis on long-range research planning and on study of such issues as aging aircraft structures and human factors affecting safety. FAA engineers and scientists also investigated areas such as human performance in aeronautical tasks, improvement of runways, and the effects of corrosion on aircraft structures.

Organizational Restructuring

In November 1995, DOT transferred the commercial space transportation office to the FAA. Originally established within DOT in 1984, the new FAA office regulated the U.S. commercial launch industry, licensed commercial launch operations to ensure public health and safety and the safety of property, and protected national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during commercial launch operations. It also issued licenses for commercial launches of orbital and suborbital rockets.

The fiscal year 1996 DOT appropriations bill, signed in November 1995, included important provisions for FAA personnel and procurement reform. FAA began the mandated reforms by first creating a new acquisition management system designed to reduce the time and cost of acquiring systems and services. FAA then placed all employees into a new personnel system intended to speed recruitment and reward outstanding employees, while dealing effectively with substandard performance. While the agency was no longer subject to certain Office of Personnel Management rules, its employees continued to enjoy a range of legal protections that applied to other federal workers.

In June 1998, FAA began testing a new compensation plan called core compensation, which replaced the traditional grade and step base pay method with a structure of pay bands, the value of which were determined by comparison with similar jobs in government and private industry. The program also linked compensation with performance. On April 23, 2000, FAA transferred approximately 6,500 employees into the core compensation system.

On September 11, 2001, nineteen radical Islamic extremists with the group al Qaeda penetrated security at three major airports, seized four U.S. domestic airliners, and turned three of the aircraft into missiles that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Passengers on the fourth plane fought the hijackers, causing the plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field. To prevent any further hijackings, FAA immediately put a ground stop on all traffic for the first time in U.S. aviation history. In the overnight hours of September 11, members of FAA's Flight Standards Service developed an initial lead identifying the names of potential hijackers and provided those names to the FBI. The tragic events of this day radically changed the FAA. On November 19, 2001, the president signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which among other provisions, established a new agency responsible for aviation security – the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), within DOT. FAA remained responsible for aviation security until February 13, 2002, when TSA took over those responsibilities. The November 2002, passage of the Homeland Security Act moved TSA into the new Department of Homeland Security on March 1, 2003.

Creation of FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO)

In April 2000, President Clinton signed into law the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, which contained a provision mandating the appointment of a chief operating officer. In a December executive order, the president directed FAA to create a performance-based organization that focused solely on efficient operation of the ATC system.

In June 2003, FAA selected its first ATO Chief Operating Officer (COO), Russell Chew. With the COO in place, FAA went forward with a major reorganization of its air traffic and research and acquisition organizations. On November 18, 2003, the Secretary of Transportation announced initial details of the new ATO business structure. The ATO consolidated FAA's air traffic services, research and acquisitions, and Free Flight Program activities into a smaller, more efficient organization with a strict focus on providing the best service for the best value to the aviation industry and the traveling public.

The ATO officially began operations on February 8, 2004. It consisted of five major service units: En Route & Oceanic; Terminal; Flight Services; System Operations; and, Technical Operations. Also included within the organization's top level are five staff-level business groups: Safety; Communications; Operations Planning; Finance; and Acquisition and Business Services. In 2008, the ATO consolidated the service units and staff offices into four business units, each led by a senior vice president.

In line with other agency efforts to improve efficiency, in December 2005, the COO restructured ATO administrative and support functions in the field. In June 2006, he instituted a new ATO Service Center structure. Three service centers replaced the nine service area offices within En Route, Terminal, and Technical Operations. Each of the service centers was made up of five functional groups: administrative services, business services, safety assurance, system support, and planning and requirements. A sixth group, engineering services, was a shared resource and remained in place in the existing locations.

With the ATO structure in place, the agency's first COO resigned from FAA on February 23, 2007. Administrator Marion Blakey assigned COO responsibilities to Deputy Administrator Robert Sturgell as collateral duties until a new COO came on board. On October 1, 2007, Administrator Blakey hired the agency's second COO, Hank Krakowski.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)

The Vision 100 – Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, signed into law in December 2003, endorsed the concept of a Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). The following month, the DOT Secretary announced plans for a new, multi-year, multi-agency effort to develop an air transportation system for the year 2025 and beyond. He subsequently established a Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) at the FAA comprised of representatives from FAA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to create and carry out an integrated plan for NextGen. On December 15, 2004, DOT unveiled the Integrated Plan for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which laid out goals, objectives, and requirements necessary to create the NextGen system.

Enhancing Capacity

When constraints in en route airspace and the airspace surrounding U.S. airports began to result in flight delays and schedule disruptions, FAA began to look for immediate solutions while continuing NextGen activities. To improve capacity, FAA began implementing a number of new concepts. The Required Navigation Performance (RNP) concept, for example, would take advantage of new onboard technologies for precision guidance to help transition the NAS from reliance on airways running over ground-based navigation aids to a point-to-point navigation concept. FAA also implemented the use of Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM), which reduced the minimum vertical separation between aircraft from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet for all properly equipped aircraft flying between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet. This increased the routes and altitudes available and allowed more efficient routings that would save time and fuel.

Safety First, Last, and Always

Between 2001 and 2007, aviation witnessed one of its safest periods for scheduled air carriers. Not counting the terrorist activities of September 11, 2001, there were only three fatal accidents in 2001; none in 2002; two in 2003; one in 2004; three in 2005; two in 2006; and none in 2007. Fatal accidents became rare events with only .01 accidents per 100,000 flight hours or .018 accidents per 100,000 departures.


Thanks to the work of FAA, over the past 50 years, aviation has become central to the way we live and do business, linking people from coast to coast and connecting America to the world. In fact, FAA has created the safest, most reliable, most efficient, and most productive air transportation system in the world.

To ensure aviation's future viability, FAA is now working with its federal and industry partners to develop a flexible aerospace system that fully responds to the changing needs of businesses and customers in the 21st century. The strength of the NextGen system depends on lower costs, improved service, greater capacity, and smarter security measures. That is why FAA has defined a vision of the future that integrates achievements in safety, security, efficiency, and environmental compatibility.

Last updated: Monday, November 15, 2021