WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is celebrating its first half-century as the nation’s guardian of aviation safety and maestro of the intricate air traffic ballet that carries more than two million people to their destinations every day.
Since President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the world of air travel has changed in ways even the most farsighted pundit could not have foreseen.
For example, in 1958 about 53 million passengers boarded airplanes, compared to the 776 million expected in 2008. In 1958, FAA air traffic controllers handled about 26.6 million takeoffs and landings, a figure expected to be around 44.1 million this year.
Even as the U.S. aviation system has grown tremendously, the FAA has made sure it runs safely as well as efficiently. In 1958, there were 9 fatal commercial air accidents in the United States resulting in 145 fatalities. For almost two years, there have been no fatal passenger airline accidents and no fatalities among the more than 1.5 billion passengers who have flown during that time. The FAA has become the “gold standard” for safety, and our regulations and best practices are copied by much of the rest of the world.
Here are some highlights of the FAA’s accomplishments over the last 50 years:
1958 – 1960
• The commercial jet age begins with FAA certification of the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8.
• The FAA gains sole responsibility for developing and maintaining a common civil-military system of air navigation and air traffic control, a responsibility previously shared with others.
• The FAA publishes the first regulations on airport and engine noise levels.
• New technologies such as Instrument Landing Systems, Distance Measuring Equipment and Airport Surface Detection Equipment are commissioned.
• The first federal air marshals ride aboard commercial flights.
• The FAA mandates cockpit voice recorders in certain aircraft.
• The FAA becomes an “administration” within the Department of Transportation.
• The FAA requires passenger and baggage screening by scheduled airlines.
• New surveillance radars, an aircraft conflict alert for controllers and the Low Level Wind Shear System become operational.
• The FAA mandates a ground proximity warning system for some airliners to warn the crew when a plane is below 2,500 feet.
• The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center begins operations to coordinate the flow of air traffic in the nation’s airspace.
• The FAA implements special air traffic restrictions when President Reagan fires 11,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) after the union stages an illegal strike.
• Landmark fire safety research leads to new FAA rules on fire resistant seat cushions, cabin materials and emergency escape path lighting.
• The FAA requires the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) on airliners with more than 30 passenger seats to help prevent mid-air collisions.
• The FAA gains authority to require explosives detection screening of checked baggage on international flights.
• Congress creates and the FAA implements the authority for airports to impose Passenger Facility Charges to fund airport-related projects.
• Congress gives the FAA authority to switch from the traditional Federal pay system to a system linking compensation with performance.
• The FAA acquires responsibility for licensing of commercial space launches.
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