The history of aviation in the United States is long and diverse, intersecting with matters of commerce, technology, transportation, and public safety. We can trace this in part through several acts of Congress, which has worked for nearly a century to guide the development of the aviation sector in a safe, efficient, and economically beneficial manner:
Air Commerce Act of 1926
Today’s Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) fill four volumes within the Code of Federal Regulations and span 3,600 pages. However, it all began with the 1926 Air Commerce Act, which bestowed upon the Secretary of Commerce several of the duties now held by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Air Commerce Act set requirements for aircraft airworthiness inspections and certifications, in addition to outlining knowledge and physical fitness tests for pilot licensing. The law also granted the federal government the authority to create new airways, aviation facilities, and regulations to facilitate safe air travel.
In order to better manage these new regulatory responsibilities, the Department of Commerce created a dedicated Aeronautics Branch, which in turn published its own set of Air Commerce Regulations. The 45-page document solidified standards for aircraft and pilot licensing, required aircraft identification markings, and mandated regular aircraft inspections and relevant record-keeping. It also provided standards for aircraft safety testing. Under these new regulations, the Buhl Airster biplane received the first federal aircraft type certificate in March 1927.
Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938
In a move that reflected the aviation sector’s growing importance to the national economy, the Department of Commerce renamed its Aeronautics Branch to the Bureau of Air Commerce. The newly renamed agency prompted airlines to establish America’s first air traffic control centers in Newark, Cleveland, and Chicago, and it would eventually assume responsibility over these centers in 1936.
After a number of high-profile airplane accidents called into question the efficacy of current aviation safety regulations, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made air travel safety a clear focus of the federal government with the signing of the Civil Aeronautics Act in 1938. The legislation established a five-member Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), as well as a three-member Air Safety Board that would handle accident investigations and provide safety recommendations. The act greatly expanded the federal government’s authority to regulate civil aviation, granting the CAA the power to regulate airline fares and determine air carrier routes.
In 1940, President Roosevelt split the CAA into two agencies: the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which handled aircraft and airmen certification, airway development, air traffic control, and safety enforcement; and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which created safety rules and commercial regulations for airlines and facilitated accident investigations.
Federal Aviation Act of 1958
The year 1958 marked the birth of the Federal Aviation Administration, the regulatory body most commonly associated with the modern governance of air transportation. On May 21, 1958, Senator A. S. “Mike” Monroney, a Democrat from Oklahoma, introduced a bill to create a single independent federal aviation agency dedicated to ensuring the safety and efficiency of both civil and military air transportation. After signing the bill into law on August 23, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially transferred the regulatory responsibilities of the Civil Aeronautics Authority to the newly created FAA. The Federal Aviation Act also reestablished the then-defunct CAB within the FAA to regulate the commercial practices of the airline industry, including fare prices, and carry out accident investigations. Retired Air Force General Elwood “Pete” Quesada became the FAA’s first appointed administrator on November 1, 1968, and the agency commenced its activities 60 days later.
Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970
Between 1959 and 1969, federally regulated aircraft operations in the United States jumped 112 percent. The booming aviation industry gave rise to public concern over its environmental impact and noise pollution. As a result, Congress gave the FAA the authority to set noise industry noise standards in 1968. The popularity of air travel also made delays and inefficiencies more prevalent, prompting Congress to pass the Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970. The measure initiated a new, FAA-directed airport aid program aimed at expanding the sector’s capacity and providing the FAA with additional responsibilities regarding airport safety certifications. The Airport and Airway Development Act was accompanied by a sister act, the Airport and Airway Revenue Act of 1970, which increased aviation industry taxes. While it was originally intended to enhance the industry in the long run, it was widely argued to have severely harmed the aviation sector.
Airline Deregulation Act of 1978
This peace of legislation transformed the face of the aviation industry developed over more than half a century. Amid high fares and mounting inefficiencies throughout the 1970’s, many began to argue that the CAB had outlived its efficacy as an instrument for industry development. After a congressional investigation revealed that unregulated state airlines charged far less than their nationally operating peers, President Jimmy Carter appointed Cornell University economist Alfred E. Kahn as the chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Kahn believed that breaking up the current structure of the aviation industry would promote growth in the sector, an idea which garnered support on both sides of the aisle. At his recommendation, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 phased out the Civil Aeronautics Board and empowered airlines to set their own routes and fares. As new and established airlines vied for the best routes, competition increased, fares dropped, and air travel thrived across the nation. This marked the first industry deregulation in US history.
Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 had a significant bearing on the air travel sector. With national security at the forefront of the country’s collective conscience, the government quickly took measures to ensure the safety of air travel. September 11 marked the first time that the FAA completely halted all air traffic, and the agency worked quickly to develop leads that would help the FBI pursue those responsible.
On November 19, 2011, President Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act at Terminal A of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, establishing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) within the Department of Transportation. While air travel security had previously been the shared responsibility of airports and air carriers, this critical piece of legislation placed it firmly in the hands of the federal government.
The Transportation Security Act bolstered passenger and luggage screening protocols, set more stringent standards for hiring and training screening personnel, and expanded incident and training protocols for in-flight security issues . The act also increased the number of air marshals active in the civil aviation sector. Once the Homeland Security Act went into effect on March 1, 2003, the TSA fell under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security.