Introduction to Certification

Introduction to Part 121 Air Carrier Certification

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses the air carrier certification process to ensure that you, the applicant, are able to design, document, implement, and audit safety critical processes that do two things:

  1. Comply with regulations and safety standards.
  2. Manage hazard-related risks in your operating environment.

The purpose of the certification process is to determine whether an applicant is able to conduct business in a manner that complies with all applicable regulations and safety standards and allows you to manage the hazard-related risks in your operating systems and environment. The process is designed to preclude the certification of applicants who are unwilling or unable to comply with regulations or to conform to safe operating practices.

The Certification Process is located in Order 8900.1 Volume 2, Chapter 3 Section 1 - 5: (Section 1, Section 2, Section 3, Section 4, Section 5) describes the processes that both you and the FAA must undergo to assure that you comply with all certification and operational requirements before receiving an air carrier  certificate. The FAA initial certification process assures that your processes, programs, systems, and intended methods of compliance are thoroughly reviewed, evaluated, and tested. Once completed, the certification process provides confidence that your infrastructure (programs, methods, and systems) results in continued compliance and provides you with the ability to manage hazard related risks in your operating systems and environment.

The FAA will not issue an air carrier certificate until the Safety Analysis and Promotion Division management, the Certification and Evaluation Program Office (CEPO) management, and Air Carrier Safety Assurance (ACSA) Management are confident and agree that the prospective certificate holder is able to provide service at the highest possible degree of safety in the public interest. The certification process is explained below, in detail."

As Title 49 of the United Sates Code states below, safety is both a priority and a legal responsibility of the Certificate Holder. It is up to the FAA to ensure that the Certificate Holder understands and accepts this duty prior to issuing the Air Carrier Certificate. The FAA receives its authority from:

  • Title 49 United States Code (USC), Section 44702, Issuance of Certificates states "When issuing a certificate under this part, the Administrator shall consider the duty of an air carrier to provide service with the highest possible degree of safety in the public interest … "
  • Title 49 USC, Section 44705, Air Carrier Operating Certificates, states "The Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall issue an air carrier operating certificate to a person desiring to operate as an air carrier when the Administrator finds, after investigation, that the person properly and adequately is equipped and able to operate safely under this part and regulations and standards prescribed under this part."

In order to assure that the policies listed above are followed, the FAA:

  • Verifies that you are capable of operating safely and that you comply with the regulations and standards prescribed by the Administrator before issuing an air carrier operating certificate and before approving or accepting air carrier programs.
  • Conducts periodic reviews to re-verify that your organization continues to meet regulatory requirements when environmental changes occur.
  • Continually validates the performance of your organization’s approved and accepted programs.

Refer to the FAA Order 8900.1 Dynamic Regulatory System (DRS), Volume 10, Chapter 1, Section 1 for additional information.

Overview of the Process

The certification process for part 121 applicants consists of a pre-application process and a series of five phases and three gates that must be successfully completed when progressing between phases.

Pre-Application Process

The certification process for part 121 applicants consists of a pre-application process and a series of five phases and three gates that must be successfully completed when progressing between phases.

A vital part of this process is to gather information and gain an understanding of the importance of implementing a Safety Management System (SMS).

Application Phases

  • Phase 1: Pre-application. This phase begins when an applicant submits a request to CEPO, either thru the Safety Assurance Systems External Portal using region C4 and Office 410 or directly, for a formal application meeting. During this phase, the CEPO team briefs the CHDO on the certification process.
  • Phase 2: Formal Application. A formal application meeting is tentatively scheduled after the FAA receives the formal application submission. Phase 2 ends when the applicant successfully completes the formal application meeting, the certification project team (CPT) accepts the formal application package and all Phase 2 Gate requirements are met.
  • Phase 3: Design Assessment. The FAA evaluates the design of your operating systems to ensure their compliance with regulations and safety standards, including the obligation to provide service at the highest possible degree of safety in the public interest. This Phase determines if your operational system design and Safety Risk Management process meet regulatory requirements. Phase 3 ends when all programs have been accepted or approved, and all Phase 3 Gate requirements have been met.
  • Phase 4: Performance Assessment. The FAA observes and monitors many types of applicant activities to confirm that your operating systems are performing as intended and produce the desired results. This phase requires the operation of an aircraft to aid in the assessment of the applicant’s system design. Proving tests begin only after all Phase 4 Gate requirements are met. Phase 4 ends after the successful completion of the proving tests and all design and performance issues are addressed per the applicant’s SMS.
  • Phase 5: Administrative functions. The FAA issues an Air Carrier or Operating Certificate and Operations Specifications when the applicant has completed all requirements, phases and gates of the certification process.

The certification process flow chart, Figure 2-90 in 8900.1 (Volume 2, Chapter 3, Section 1) provides an overview of the certification/application process. Simultaneous use of the flow chart and narrative discussion will assist you and the inspector in understanding the certification process. The chart is particularly useful in determining whether the "Schedule of Events" is reasonable in terms of sequence, timeliness, and inspector resource availability. It also provides a perspective on how a particular event affects other events and is an important reference for planning various activities during the certification/application process.

Additional Information

The FAA’s Approach to Certification

The importance of having a complete understanding of the FAA's system safety-based approach to the certification process cannot be underestimated. The system documentation that you provide to the FAA during certification will be evaluated using a system safety-based approach.

Overview of the Safety Assurance System (SAS). SAS is the program the FAA uses to ensure that you comply with regulations and safety standards and are capable of managing hazard-related risk in your system. Along with System Safety, Advisory Circular (AC 120-92), ‘Introduction to Safety Management Systems for Air Operators’, provides information about the FAA’s philosophy and intent for air carrier oversight.


You will work with the FAA throughout the certification process. The most effective and efficient way to navigate through the certification process is to understand the role that the FAA plays, as well as the role your organization plays.

FAA’s Role

  • Verifies that an air carrier is capable of operating at the highest possible degree of safety and that its safety-critical process complies with the regulations and safety standards prescribed by the FAA.
  • Approves or accepts air carrier processes and programs.
  • Issues an air carrier certificate.

Applicant’s Role

  • Provides documentation that meets or exceeds FAA expectations for quality, completeness, and timeliness.
  • Designs and documents processes that identify hazards in its system and manages the associated risk to an acceptable level.
  • Audits processes using their Safety Risk Management (SRM) process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any new regulations that require the carriers to revise their programs to meet the SAS requirements?

No. SAS is an oversight methodology used by FAA inspectors to conduct certification and surveillance of 14CFR Part 121, and Part 135 air carriers.

Can my carrier get access to the Data Collection Tools?

Certificate holders and applicants can access the SAS un-scoped DCTs from DRS on the FAA’s public web site.

How does my carrier become SAS compliant?

SAS is an oversight methodology for use by inspectors, not a set of standards or processes that an operator must comply with. To suggest that an operator must comply with this oversight process is to misconstrue the intent of the system. The term "compliance" as commonly used has referred to regulatory issues. Title 14 CFR Part 5 is a regulatory directive for a carrier to incorporate the underlying concepts of System Safety into their operations. There is no regulatory directive to reference the SAS surveillance tools in any aspect of their operations. Air Carrier certification and surveillance is based on the regulations requirements and structures specifically outlined in 14 CFR Part 121 the Code of Federal Regulations.

Why do I need a SMS?

Title 14 CFR Part 5 now requires certificate holders under Part 119 to have a Safety Management System that meets the requirements of Part 5.

Last updated: Monday, June 27, 2022