Millions of people in the United States board airplanes every year, flying to destinations both domestic and abroad. The thousands of planes that carry them are all governed by one organization, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA, which began as the Federal Aviation Agency in 1958, was created by the Federal Aviation Act. According to the FAA, its mission is to provide "a safe, secure and efficient global aerospace system that contributes to national security and the promotion of U.S. aerospace safety... [a system that is] responsive to the dynamic nature of customer needs, economic conditions and environmental concerns."

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
The Federal Aviation Agency was established in 1958. It became the Federal Aviation Administration in 1967, when it became part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The FAA accomplishes its mission through a series of activities that can be split into three main categories:

  • Airspace management
  • Regulation and licensing
  • Research and development

Now, you will learn about FAA activities in each of these categories. You'll find out how the FAA regulates the traffic flow and safety of the U.S. airspace, what the FAA regulates and licenses and the types of research the FAA is involved in.

Airspace Management
Safety is one of the biggest jobs at the FAA. The FAA has to make sure that planes are safe, that pilots are safe, that airports are secure from terrorists, and so on. One big part of safety is making sure that planes don't run into each other when they are in the air.

The National Airspace System (NAS) is in charge of all aircraft that are in motion at any given moment. The NAS oversees both U.S. civilian and commercial aviation and also provides traffic control for military craft flying over domestic airspace. This is a huge task. For instance, during the year 2000, the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) routed over 46-million flights!

When an aircraft is at an airport, it is managed by an airport traffic control tower (ATCT). The ATCT is located at the airport and basically handles the departure and arrival of aircraft at that particular airport. Large airports, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, may have more than one ATCT due to their size and amount of traffic.

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
The interior of an airport traffic control tower

When the plane has departed the airport, the ATCT hands it off to the local terminal radar approach control (TRACON) facilities. A TRACON is normally the "middleman," taking over the management of aircraft from the time they leave an airport until they reach a cruising altitude of 18,000 feet (5,486 m) or higher. At that point, the TRACON hands off the aircraft to the regional ARTCC. However, if the aircraft is small and stays below 18,000 feet throughout the flight, the TRACON handles the entire flight.

ARTCCs are the heart of airspace management. As of 2001, there were 22 ARTCCs -- 20 in the continental United States, one in Anchorage, Alaska, and another in Guam. Each ARTCC is responsible for an area of airspace defined by the FAA. For example, according to the map on this page, the Minneapolis ARTCC manages over 300,000 square miles (776,996 km2) of airspace, covering all or part of seven states and portions of Canada.

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Southern California TRACON at San Diego, CA

ARTCCs break down their assigned airspace into sectors, which are just smaller segments of airspace. Sectors are usually defined with horizontal and vertical boundaries. For example, one sector may cover a geographic area of 500 square miles and range from ground to 23,000 feet, while a second sector covers the same geographic area but ranges from 23,000 to 37,000 feet. Each sector has an air traffic controller assigned to monitor it. The controller coordinates the flight paths of any aircraft that enter his or her sector and inform other controllers of aircraft that are about to enter theirs.

Occasionally, an aircraft never leaves the airspace of a single ARTCC, as is often the case with commuter flights. But usually, the aircraft's destination is in the jurisdiction of another ARTCC. In this case, the first ARTCC hands off the aircraft to the next ARTCC as it leaves the first ARTCC's airspace. This handing-off continues until the aircraft is within the boundaries of the destination ARTCC.

As an aircraft approaches its destination, the departure hand-off sequence is simply reversed. The regional ARTCC of the destination airport hands off the aircraft to the local TRACON, which guides the aircraft into the airport. As the aircraft prepares for final approach, the TRACON hands off the aircraft to the airport's ATCT. The ATCT guides the aircraft in for landing and tells it when it can go to the appropriate gate so the passengers can disembark.

In addition to the in-flight management provided by the facilities discussed above, the FAA operates flight service stations (FSS). These are centers where pilots submit flight plans and receive debriefings about the weather and any other conditions that might affect their flight. Also, each FSS broadcasts weather, emergency and navigation information and advisories and coordinates search-and-rescue efforts.

Check out How Air Traffic Control Works to learn more about airspace management. In the next section, we will talk about how the FAA provides safety regulations and licensing.

Regulation and Licensing
The FAA is responsible for enforcement of safety and security for the U.S. airspace. This is accomplished through the enforcement of airport and airline security guidelines. In addition, the FAA is the licensing authority for
U.S. aircraft pilots, ensuring that they meet the minimum requirements necessary for safe and knowledgeable operation of a particular class of aircraft.

The primary regulation of airspace occurs through the air-traffic management system discussed in the previous section. Air traffic controllers follow guidelines established by the FAA for everything from the distance between aircraft to the radio frequencies they communicate on.

In the United States, the FAA is responsible for licensing virtually everything related to aerospace, including commercial space operations. There are 16 commercial space launches planned for 2001, and that number is projected to grow with each subsequent year.

Photo courtesy NASA
Commercial space launches are used primarily to place communications satellites in orbit.

The aerospace areas licensed or certified by the FAA include:

  • Personnel (pilots, instructors, engineers, mechanics, air traffic controllers)
  • Aircraft
  • Airlines
  • Airports
  • Air traffic management facilities
  • Commercial air-freight facilities
  • Commercial space-launch facilities
  • Commercial space vehicles

If a person, place or object is "licensed," it has met the requirements set forth by the FAA to operate in the manner designated by that particular license. For example, a pilot may receive a visual flight rules (VFR) license that allows him to operate an aircraft flying under 3,000 feet (914 m) and only when visibility is 3 miles (4.8 km) or better. Unless the pilot gets an instrument flight rules (IFR) license, he is not allowed to pilot an aircraft flying above 3,000 feet or in reduced visibility.

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
FAA inspectors certify that an aircraft meets the required safety standards.

The FAA expects that there will be more than 230,000 active aircraft in the United States by 2004 and that the ARTCCs will be routing approximately 50-million flights that year. With so many flights, safety is a major concern. Safety standards are set by the FAA for all facets of aviation, from the equipment and structure of the aircraft to the amount of fatigue or stress that the pilot is under.

The FAA has the authority to ground a pilot, an aircraft or an entire airline if it feels that there is reasonable doubt as to the ability of that entity to operate safely. "Grounding" means that a person or craft cannot fly until the FAA provides clearance to do so. For example, if an airline has a couple of planes that fail inspection, the FAA has the authority to ground the entire airline until the Administration is assured that everything is in compliance.

A common misconception is that the FAA handles the investigation of plane crashes. That is actually done by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency that investigates all transportation-related accidents. You can learn more about the NTSB in the article How Black Boxes Work.

In 1999, there were 19,098 U.S. airports: 5,324 public and 13,774 private. According to the FAA Factbook, there were 691 aviation-related fatalities in the United States that year. Let's compare that to the other forms of transportation:

Transportation Type Fatalities in 1999
Aviation 691
Highway 41,611
Marine 853
Rail 805

As you can see, even boating and train accidents claimed more lives than aircraft accidents. The interesting thing about the above statistics is that even with so many more highway fatalities than aviation fatalities, most people who are afraid to fly don't think twice about hopping in their car or truck.

Research and Development
The FAA is constantly researching, developing or implementing new programs, technologies and methods that will improve aviation. Of the organization's $3.2-billion budget for 2001, $187-million has been allocated for research and development. The FAA even has several suborganizations, such as the
Office of Aviation Research, that are dedicated to research and development.

The key areas of FAA research include:

  • Air traffic management and control
  • Navigation systems
  • Aircraft noise pollution
  • Airport security
  • Energy conservation
  • Hazardous materials transportation
  • Aviation technology
  • Satellite technology
  • Surveillance systems
  • Communications systems
  • Landing systems

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Host and Oceanic System Replacement (HOCSR)

The photo above is an example of the type of research being done by the FAA. In this photo, you see the Host and Oceanic System Replacement (HOCSR), a very powerful computer system that has been deployed to all of the ARTCCs. HOCSR is a development system that the FAA can use to field-test various programs designed to enhance the speed and safety of aircraft en route to their destinations.

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
An experimental airport surveillance radar system being tested at William J. Hughes Technical Center

One of the major FAA research facilities is the William J. Hughes Technical Center, home to several research programs including Aviation Security Research and Development (AAR-500). A key part of AAR-500's mission is to anticipate future threats to U.S. aviation. As part of AAR-500, the Aviation Security Laboratory is used to develop preventative measures and countermeasures for such threats.

AAR-500 has four research and development areas:

  • Explosives and weapons detection
  • Aircraft hardening
  • Human factors
  • Airport security technology integration

Recently, the FAA announced its 10-year strategy for the modernization of the air traffic management system. In the new plan, air management control for most aircraft would switch from ground-based systems to a network of satellites. The improved system would allow for a 30-percent increase in capacity and fewer delays and bottlenecks. You can read more about these plans here. Check out the links below for comprehensive information on the FAA's research and development programs:

On the next page, you'll find links to lots of great resources and other articles on airports and aviation.

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