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The Government Role in Civil Aviation - An Overview

Governments have played an important part in shaping air transportation. This role began as early as 1783, when the king of France summoned the Montgolfier brothers to demonstrate their balloon. In 1892, the French War Ministry backed an attempt to build a heavier-than-air flying machine. Six years later, a military board in the United States approved a grant to assist similar efforts by Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. These early military grants gave a hint of how important airplanes would become in warfare, but they properly belong to the history of air power. This essay deals with the official influence on civilian flying, and it focuses on the U.S. experience.

Langley's Smithsonian was a significant source of information for those interested in the possibility of heavier-than-air flight. The Institution distributed literature about aeronautical principals as part of its scientific mission, which was partly supported by federal taxes. Among those who studied this material were Wilbur and Orville Wright, whose own experiments led them to achieve controlled, powered flight in 1903.

Despite its early start, the United States soon lost aeronautical leadership. European enthusiasm for air power was sparked by an arms race and then by the outbreak of war in 1914. During the following year, Congress took a step toward revitalizing American aviation by establishing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an organization dedicated to the science of flight.

Upon entering World War I in 1917, the U.S. government mobilized the nation's economy, with results that included an expansion of the small aviation manufacturing industry. Before the end of the conflict, Congress voted funds for an innovative postal program that would serve as a model for commercial air operations.

With initial help from the Army, the Post Office in 1918 initiated an intercity airmail route. The subsequent achievements of the Air Mail Service included the establishment of a transcontinental route and the development of airway lighting.

In 1925, new postal legislation authorized the Post Office to contract with private airlines to transport mail. This prospect offered the hope of steady income to America's struggling air carriers.

Many aviation leaders in the 1920s believed that federal regulation was necessary to give the public confidence in the safety of air transportation. Opponents of this view included those who distrusted government interference or wished to leave any such regulation to state authorities. To investigate the issue, President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board whose report favored federal safety regulation. Congress passed the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which assigned to the U.S. Department of Commerce the fundamental tasks needed for civil air safety. Among these functions were: testing and licensing pilots, issuing certificates to guarantee the airworthiness of aircraft, making and enforcing safety rules, and investigating air accidents. The Act also directed the department to take certain actions to assist the progress of aviation.

To fulfill its new aviation responsibilities, the Department of Commerce created an Aeronautics Branch. The first head of this organization was William P. MacCracken, Jr., whose approach to regulation included consultation and cooperation with industry. A major challenge facing MacCracken was to enlarge and improve the nation's air navigation system. The Aeronautics Branch took over the Post Office's task of building airway light beacons, and in 1928 introduced a new navigation aid known as the low frequency radio range. The branch also built additional airway communications stations as part of its effort to encourage broader use of aeronautical radio and to combat problems of adverse weather.

While the Aeronautics Branch was making these advances, NACA was producing benefits through a program of laboratory research begun in 1920. In 1928, for example, the organization's pioneering work with wind tunnels produced a new type of engine cowling that made aircraft more aerodynamic.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Aeronautics Branch cooperated with public works agencies on projects that represented an early form of federal aid to airports. Budget cuts and distracting quarrels hampered the branch during this period. It achieved a more unified organizational structure, however, and in 1934 received a new name, the Bureau of Air Commerce.

The year 1934 also saw a crisis over airmail contracts that former Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown had used to strengthen the airline route structure. Investigators now charged that Brown's methods had been illegal, and President Roosevelt canceled the contracts. Army fliers experienced many accidents carrying the mail before a modified contract system was restored.

Increased commercial flying heightened the danger of midair collisions. In 1935, therefore, the Bureau of Air Commerce encouraged a group of airlines to establish the first three centers for providing air traffic control along the airways. In the following year, the Bureau itself took over the centers and began to expand the control system.

In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act transferred federal responsibilities for non-military aviation from the Bureau of Air Commerce to a new, independent agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority. The legislation also gave the authority the power to regulate airline fares and to determine the routes that air carriers would serve.

In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt split the authority into two agencies, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAA was responsible for air traffic control, safety programs, and airway development. The CAB was entrusted with safety rulemaking, accident investigation, and economic regulation of the airlines. Although both organizations were part of the Department of Commerce, the CAB functioned independently.

After World War II began in Europe, the CAA launched a Civilian Pilot Training Program to provide the nation with more aviators. On the eve of America's entry into the conflict, the agency began to take over operation of airport control towers, a role that eventually became permanent. During the war, the CAA also greatly enlarged its en route air traffic control system. In 1944, the United States hosted a conference in Chicago that led to the establishment of the International Civil Aviation Organization and set the framework for future aviation diplomacy.

In the post-war era, the application of radar to air traffic control helped controllers to keep abreast of the postwar boom in air transportation. In 1946, Congress gave the CAA the task of administering a federal-aid airport program aimed exclusively at promoting development of the nation's civil airports.

The approaching era of jet travel, and a series of midair collisions, prompted passage of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. This legislation gave the CAA's functions to a new independent body, the Federal Aviation Agency. The act transferred safety rulemaking from CAB to the new FAA, and also gave the FAA sole responsibility for a common civil-military system of air navigation and air traffic control. The FAA's first administrator, Elwood R. Quesada, was a former Air Force general and advisor to President Eisenhower.

The same year witnessed the birth of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created in the wake of the Soviet launching of the first artificial satellite. NASA assumed NACA's role of aeronautical research while achieving world leadership in space technology and exploration.

In 1967, a new Department of Transportation (DOT) combined major federal responsibilities for air and surface transport. FAA's name changed to the Federal Aviation Administration as it became one of several agencies within DOT. At the same time, a new National Transportation Safety Board took over the CAB's role of investigating aviation accidents.

The FAA gradually assumed additional functions. The hijacking epidemic of the 1960s had already brought the agency into the field of civil aviation security. The FAA became more involved with the environmental aspects of aviation in 1968 when it received the power to set aircraft noise standards. Legislation in 1970 gave the agency management of a new airport aid program and certain added responsibilities for airport safety.

By the mid-1970s, the FAA had achieved a semi-automated air traffic control system using both radar and computer technology. This system required enhancement to keep pace with air traffic growth, however, especially after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 phased out the CAB's economic regulation of the airlines. A nationwide strike by the air traffic controllers union in 1981 forced temporarily flight restrictions but failed to shut down the airspace system. During the following year, the agency unveiled a new plan for further automating its air traffic control facilities, but progress proved  disappointing. In 1994, the FAA shifted to a more step-by-step approach that has provided controllers with advanced equipment.

In the 1990s, satellite technology received increased emphasis in the FAA's development programs as a means to improvements in communications, navigation, and airspace management. In 1995, the agency assumed responsibility for safety oversight of commercial space transportation, a function begun eleven years before by an office within DOT headquarters.

As the new century began, issues facing the FAA included the progress of reforms aimed at giving the agency greater flexibility. Airline accidents, although rare in statistical terms, showed the need for further safety advances. The huge volume of flights challenged the capacity of the airport system, yet demonstrated the popularity of air travel.  In September 2001, however, the air transportation system was challenged by terrorist attacks in which hijacked airliners were used as missiles that killed thousands of U.S. citizens as well as many others from around the world. The government's response included legislation, enacted in November, that established a new DOT organization. This new Transportation Security Administration received broad powers to protect air travel and other transportation modes against criminal activity.  Its creation was the latest step in the evolution of U.S. government's civil aviation role to meet changing needs and priorities.

--Edmund Preston, Agency Historian

Federal Aviation Administration


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Leary, William M. Aerial Pioneers – The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

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Mondey, David.The International Encyclopedia of Aviation. New York, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1977.

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Note: The listed books published by government agencies may often be found in libraries' government documents sections rather than in their general catalog.

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