The FAA is a division of the US Department of Transportation headquartered at 800 Independence Avenue SW in Washington, D.C. It is divided into six main sub-administrations, which together explain the Administration's mission: The FAA's office space in Washington, however, consumes only a small portion of the $9.5 billion they receive in the annual United States budget. They directly operate 27 flight service stations, 19 control towers, six approach control stations, and four air route traffic control centers across the United States, and also maintain an extensive network of inspectors to regulate everything and everyone that flies under a civilian registration.

The FAA has been around for less than thirty-five years: it was preceded by the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was chiefly responsible for doling out route awards and air mail contracts to various airlines. Since the airline deregulation of 1978, the FAA's principal job has been to monitor air safety, and they do this through a number of bureaucratic mechanisms.

One of the main mechanisms they use is certification. Every aircraft, airport, pilot, and mechanic in the United States has to be tested, registered, and licensed by the FAA. An "airport," by the FAA's definition, is any place that handles aircraft carrying more than 30 people. The definition of "aircraft" is broader, and basically encompasses anything that flies and carries more than one person, which would include hot air balloons and sailplanes but not hang gliders. This means that you can use a private field as a landing strip without having it authorized by the FAA, but you can't fly out of it without a pilot's license and a registered aircraft. (Every aircraft registered with the FAA, incidentally, is given its own alphanumeric registration that starts with "N" and must be painted on a visible part of the plane.)

The many regulations imposed by the FAA are called the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FAR for short, and are denoted in Chapter 14, Sections 1-199, of the Code of Federal Regulations. The FAR is the source of any "federal regulations" you may hear about when flying on a US airline, including the one that doesn't let you play with the smoke detector in the lavatory (14 CFR 121.308). The FAR's also dictate virtually every aspect of how aircraft are built and operated, including which flame retardant fabrics can be used in seats, how long pilots may fly within a given time period, how much hand baggage passengers can carry, and what drugs crew members can and cannot consume. (The official book of regulations is online at for those who are interested. Masochists.)

A complete writeup on this has already been written, and I'm not in a position to give any comprehensive analysis of the FAA. I would, however, like to add something that I have recently discovered and found interesting. The FAA is quite different from an agency like the FDA that rigorously tests products and has high regulatory hurdles that aviation companies must jump.

Rather, the FAA, in practice and documented in its literature, delegates testing and regulation to private individuals whenever possible. For example, major corporations that make aircraft components have designated engineering representatives (DER's)--paid employees of the corporations--that can provide FAA approval for component alterations. There are also private consultant DER's for smaller companies that can't afford their own.

I have found that the FAA is unusually lax about this delegation process. The FAA openly acknowledges that it delegates a considerable amount of regulatory authority to people with a financial interest in the products they are regulating, which is the case for in-house DER's. Often the DER is one of the company's engineers, though there is nothing prohibiting that he be in marketing, litigation, or whatever. The FAA justification is that private DER's understand the particular engineering issues well and can make safety changes more rapidly. But obviously there is also a conflict of interest issue raised. In an NTSB aircraft accident investigation, for instance, the DER's of private corporations are responsible for investigation findings for their companys' particular components.

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