How the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Works

By: Jeff Tyson
Millions of people in the United States travel by airplane every year. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ensures their safety by regulating the air transportation industry and maintaining a nationwide network of air traffic control systems. Created by the passage of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 as the Federal Aviation Agency, the FAA changed its name when it joined the Department of Transportation in 1967 [source: FAA History]. According to the FAA Web site, the agency's mission is "to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world." As of 2006, more than 47,000 people worked at the FAA, and more than 32,000 of them were part of the administration's air traffic organization [source: FAA Administrator's Fact Book].

FAA Headquarters
Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Founded in 1958, the Federal Aviation Agency later
became the Federal Aviation Administration in 1967,
when it joined the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In addition to regulating the civil aviation industry and maintaining air traffic control, the FAA has other responsibilities, including developing new aviation technology, creating initiatives to regulate noise and other effects of air transportation and regulating space transportation in the United States.

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

  • Airspace management
  • Regulation and licensing
  • Research and development

In this article, you will learn how the FAA regulates air safety, what it regulates and licenses and the types of research it conducts.

Video Gallery: Air Traffic Control
See how air traffic control works in this video from NASA Destination Tomorrow.


Airspace Management

Safety is the most important job of the FAA. The FAA ensures that aircraft are safe to fly, that pilots and mechanics are qualified, and that the people and systems that regulate the flow of air traffic do so safely.

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 a complex system made up of the people, equipment and systems that monitor every plane in the air over the United States and large parts of the world's oceans at any given moment. The NAS oversees both U.S. civilian and commercial aviation and provides traffic control for military craft flying over domestic airspace. This is a huge task - according to the FAA, an average of 50,000 flights use the NAS each day. In 2006, the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) routed more than 46 million flights [source: FAA Administrator's Fact Book].

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 handles the departures and arrivals of aircraft at that particular airport. Large airports, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, may have more than one ATCT due to their size and volume of traffic.

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

Once the plane has departed and is five miles from the airport, the ATCT ­­hands it off to local terminal radar approach control (TRACON) facilities. A TRACON is normally the "middleman," managing the airspace around major metropolitan areas, generally within a 30- to 50-mile radius and under 10,000 feet [source: FAA TRACON fact sheet]. Once the aircraft leaves that zone, the plane enters what the FAA calls "en route airspace," and the TRACON hands the aircraft off to the regional ARTCC. However, if the aircraft is small and stays below 10,000 feet throughout the flight, the TRACON handles the entire flight.

ARTCCs are the heart of airspace management. There are 22 ARTCCs, each of which is responsible for an area of airspace defined by the FAA. Next, we'll learn how ARTCCs operate. ­


Air Route Traffic Control Centers

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

ARTCCs break down their assigned airspace into smaller, three-dimensional pieces known as sectors. For example, one sector may cover a geographic area of 500 square miles and range from the ground up to 23,000 feet, while a second sector covers the same geographic area but ranges from 23,000 feet in the air up 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 informs other controllers of aircraft that are about to enter theirs.

Occasionally, an aircraft never leaves the airspace of a single control center, as is often the case with commuter flights. Usually, h­owever, the aircraft's destination is in the jurisdiction of another ARTCC. In this case, the first ARTCC hands the aircraft off to the next ARTCC as it leaves the first ARTCC's airspace. The plane goes from one traffic control center to the next, until it reaches 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 the aircraft off to the local TRACON, which guides the aircraft into the airport. As the aircraft prepares for final approach, the TRACON hands the aircraft off 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), centers where pilots submit flight plans and receive information about the weather and any other conditions that might affect their flight. Each FSS broadcasts weather, emergency and navigation information and advisories, and coordinates search-and-rescue efforts.

In the next section, we will talk about how the FAA provides safety regulations and licensing.

Changes Since Sept. 11, 2001
American intelligence agencies issued warnings of possible terrorist attacks in the summer and fall of 2001. While the FAA considered the possibility of a suicide hijacking, at the time officials considered sabotage or traditional hijacking more realistic threats [source: The 9/11 Commission]. After 9/11, the FAA began working on improvements in baggage screening and explosives detection. The administration also issued new guidance for air crew member training to identify potential human threats more effectively. Additionally, it published new standards for airlines and aircraft manufacturers to harden plane cockpit doors and limit cockpit access.


Regulation and Licensing

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

Not only does the FAA regulate U.S. airspace, it ensures air travel safety by creating and enforcing airport and airline safety and security guidelines. In addition, the FAA is the licensing authority for U.S. aircraft pilots, making certain 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 use to communicate.

In the United States, the FAA is responsible for licensing virtually everything related to aerospace, including commercial space operations. There are 10 commercial space launches planned for 2007 [source: FAA Administrator's Fact Book].

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

To be licensed, a person, place or object must meet the requirements set forth by the FAA to operate according to the rules of that particular license. For example, a pilot may receive a visual flight rules (VFR) license that allows him to operate an aircraft flying under 18,000 feet (5 486.4 meters), but the lowerst cloud layer cannot be lower than 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) and visibility must be 3 miles (4.8 km) or better. Unless the pilot gets an instrument flight rules (IFR) license, he may not 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 2009 and that the ARTCCs will be routing more than 50 million flights that year [source: FAA Administrator's Fact Book]. With so much traffic in the air, safety is a major concern. The FAA sets safety standards for all facets of aviation, from the equipment and structure of the aircraft to the amount of fatigue or stress that the pilot can endure in a work shift.

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 agency is assured that everything is in compliance.

Although the FAA ensures air travel safety, the agency does not look into the causes of plane crashes. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the independent federal agency that investigates all transportation-related accidents. You can learn more about the NTSB in the article How Black Boxes Work.

According to the FAA Administrator's Fact Book, there were 616 aviation-related fatalities in the United States in 2005. Let's compare that to the other forms of transportation:

Transportation Type Fatalities in 2005
Aviation 616
Highway 43,443
Marine 769
Rail 789

In 2005, even boating and train accidents claimed more lives than aircraft accidents. Statistically speaking, flying is safer than driving, yet 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 and implementing new programs, technologies and methods that will improve aviation. Of the organization's $8.4-billion budget for 2007, $130 million has been allocated for research and development [source: FAA Administrator's Fact Book]. The FAA even has several sub-organizations dedicated to research and development, such as the Office of Aviation Research.

The key areas of FAA research include:

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

Air traffic management and control

  • Aviation weather
  • Navigation systems
  • Aircraft noise pollution
  • Airport security
  • Energy conservation
  • Aviation technology
  • Satellite technology
  • Surveillance systems
  • Communications systems
  • Landing systems
  • Systems science
  • Commercial space transportation

The photo above is an example of the type of research conducted by the FAA. In this photo, you see the Host and Oceanic System Replacement (HOCSR), a very powerful computer system used in the ARTCCs [source: FAA press release]. HOCSR is a development system used to field-test various programs designed to enhance the speed and safety of aircraft.

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

The main FAA research facility is the William J. Hughes Technical Center, where around 150 research programs are in development at any given time. The center is also home to security initiatives including the Federal Air Marshal Program, the Transportation Security Laboratory and 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 develops preventative measures and countermeasures for such threats.

According to the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, the AAR-500 has four research and development areas:

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

To improve safety and security for air travel passengers, the FAA, the Joint Planning and Development Office, and other agencies are currently upgrading the air traffic management system with satellite technology and advanced networking to improve air management control. The improved system will allow an increase in system capacity with fewer delays and bottlenecks. Check out the links below for comprehensive information on some of the FAA's research and development programs:

For more information on the FAA, aviation and airports, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Links

More Great Links


  • A Brief History of the Federal Aviation Administration
  • The FAA Administrator's Fact Book
  • "Aircraft Security Accomplishments Since Sept. 11"
  • "Improvements in Civil Aviation Security Since Pan Am 103"
  • 9/11 Commission Sept. 2005 Staff Report
  • National Airspace System Frequently Asked Questions
  • FAA TRACON Fact Sheet
  • FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers
  • Summary of FAA Activities
  • FAA Air Traffic System Requirements
  • "Host and Oceanic Computer System Replacement Program" Press Release
  • "William J. Hughes Technical Center"
  • National Research and Development Plan For Aviation Safety, Security, Efficiency, and Environmental Compatibility