The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (hereafter referred to as “the Act”) was enacted mainly to make provision for promotion and regulation of aviation in the interest of safety and development (Federal Aviation Act, 1958). It was passed in response to what was felt to be inadequate regulation. There had been calls for comprehensive legislative reform but Congress was not convinced about the necessity for such reforms. A series of accidents laid bare the inadequacies of the existing regulation. The public outcry that followed these accidents forced Congress to react by passing the Act.
Flying in the 1920s, when the first statute was passed to regulate aviation, was very dangerous business. Even with notable development of aviation technology, magnetic compasses were the only devices available for air navigation. Aviation industry leaders firmly believed that the commercial potential of airplanes could not be fully exploited without federal intervention to establish and maintain safety standards. In 1926, at the urging of these leaders, the Air Commerce Act was passed. This Act imposed several responsibilities on the Secretary of Commerce including fostering air commerce, operation and maintenance of aids to air navigation, issuance and enforcement of air traffic regulations, licensing of pilots, establishment of airways and certifying aircrafts.
In the 1930s several high profile aircraft accidents brought Department of Commerce’s oversight into question. A 1931 crash killed all passengers and crew including a popular university football coach. Another plane crashed in 1935 killing the then New Mexico senator Bronson Cutting. The Civil Aeronautics Act was passed in 1938 creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority. The Authority was vested with the responsibility of investigating aircraft accidents and making recommendations on how to prevent them, making safety rules and certifying aircrafts and pilots (Shea, 1995). It also had power to regulate fares and the routes used by individual carriers.
In the immediate post war period, there were significant aviation related technological advances. With these advances, the airline industry experienced a boom and the airspace became crowded. Aircraft speed also increased immensely (Harris, 2004). For instance, the first passenger jet introduced in 1952 had a speed of 480 miles per hour when the existing U.S. passenger aircraft had a top speed of 180 miles per hour (FAA, 2015). These developments made air transport more perilous than it ever was before.
Air travel had become common and as such, the accident was a concern for the wider public. It dawned on everyone that most of the U.S. airspace was uncontrolled. Congress was pressured to reform the law to promote safety in air travel (Fonseca, 2014). In 1957, Congress reacted by passing the Airways Modernisation Act that created the Airways Modernisation Board. This board was established as a stopgap measure pending further legislation (Harris, 2004).
Until this time, many aviation functions were carried out separately without coordination. This absence of coordination had very harmful drawbacks. For instance, it was discovered in 1958 that millions of dollars were wasted by the military in developing a military system of air navigation which was completely incompatible with the navigation system that was being developed by civil aviation authorities (Steinberg, Day, & Rao, 2008). Air traffic control for civilian and military aircrafts was one of the functions that were not unified. This was proven to be a very unwise practice in 1958.
On 20 May 1958, a commercial plane and a military plane collided in Maryland. It resulted in 11 fatalities. On 21 April 1958, there was a similar collision which had resulted in the death of 49 people. This gave impetus to the drive for more comprehensive reform of safety laws (Harris, 2004). On 21 May 1958, Senator A.S. Monroney of Oklahoma introduced a bill that made provision for safety and efficiency in the use of the U.S. airspace (FAA, 2015). President Eisenhower indicated his support to the bill. It passed and he signed it into law on 23 August 1958 (Harris, 2004).
The Act transferred the functions of the Civil Aeronautics Authority to a newly established body, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) (Harris, 2004). The Civil Aeronautics Board also lost its power to make aviation regulations to the new agency. In a general sense, the FAA was empowered to supervise and regulate airline safety and the utilization of the U.S. airspace. It was made solely responsible for the U.S. civil-military air navigation system and air traffic control (“The Federal Aviation Act of 1958,” n.d.). The Act identified FAA’s main duties as regulation of air transportation, promoting the development of civil aeronautics, promoting safety of civil aircraft engaged in air commerce, regulating air navigation facilities, developing and maintaining systems for civil and military navigation and air traffic control and carrying out research in the field of civil aeronautics (Federal Aviation Act, 1958). In 1968 it was given an additional responsibility; that of regulating noise pollution by aircrafts (FAA, 2015).
Notably, before the Act became effective, responsibility for navigation facilities, development of infrastructure and air traffic control, among others, was scattered among several government agencies (Steinberg et al., 2008). The Act consolidated the various functions relating to air safety and airspace use and placed them under the jurisdiction of one independent body, the FAA. The centralization of functions was very beneficial in several ways. It removed existing gaps in aviation regulation, eliminated overlaps and conflicts, increased coordination, resulted in less wastage of resources and reduced safety risks. The fact that the agency was independent meant that it could be more effective in discharging its mandate.
Creating the FAA is arguably the most significant benefit of the Act. Even after several legislative changes affecting aviation transport, including the repeal of the Act in 1994, the FAA has remained substantially the way it was established in 1958. In 1968 it was renamed the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has been very effective in discharging its obligations. It has been especially effective in ensuring safety in air travel. Safety is pursued both for its own sake and as a means to achieve other objectives such as development of air commerce. It is critical to the aviation industry; it is at the heart of the industry. The biggest proportion of budgetary allocation is made to activities that directly affect safety (refer to chart 1 and 2). The FAA must be credited with the safety record enjoyed in the U.S. aviation industry. Air traffic has grown many times over what it was in 1958. It is estimated to have grown by about 130% between 1978 and 1994 (“Federal Aviation Administration,” 2005). With ineffective management of air traffic, one would expect accident numbers to grow by a greater proportion than the rate of growth of air traffic. However, National Transportation Safety Board data indicates that accidents involving fatalities did not increase correspondingly (National Transportation Safety Board, 2010). In fact, there was only a marginal increase. Refer to Table 1. The FAA has been criticised for its handling of labour disputes and for giving inadequate attention to security management prior to 11 September 2001 (Fiske, 2010; FAA, 2015).
Thanks to the Act which established the FAA, aviation is now central to the way Americans live and do business. Without the FAA being in place and doing what it has been doing since it was established, this would not be the case. It has had its fair share of shortcomings such as security failures and improper handling of labour disputes, but these shortcomings are insignificant compared to its achievements. It is credited with creating the most efficient, reliable and productive system of air transportation. The system is also very safe.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). (2015). History. Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/about/history/brief_history/
Federal Aviation Act (1958).
Federal Aviation Administration. (1999). Federal Aviation Administration Annual Report 1999.
Federal Aviation Administration. (2005). In West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. Retrieved from Encyclpedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Federal_Aviation_Administration.aspx
Fiske, I. D. (2010). Failing to Secure the Skies: Why America has Struggled to Protect Itself and How it Can Change. Virginia Journal of Law & Technology, 15(73), 173–197.
Fonseca, F. (2014, August 7). 1956 Grand Canyon Crash Site Becomes Historic Landmark. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://m.reviewjournal.com/news/nation-and-world/1956-grand-canyon-crash-site-becomes-historic-landmark
Harris, D. B. (2004). Federal Aviation Act (1958). In Major Acts of Congress. Retrieved from Encyclpedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407400112.html
National Transportation Safety Board. (2010). Accidents Involving Passenger Fatalities: U.S. Airlines (Part 121) 1982 - Present. Retrieved from http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/data/Pages/paxfatal.aspx
Shea, P. J. (1995). Solving America’s General Aviation Crisis: The Advantages of Federal Preemption Over Tort Reform. Cornell Law Review, 80(3), 746–810.
Steinberg, A. B., Day, J., & Rao, N. (2008). Introducing Competition into the Development and Deployment of the Next Generation Air Traffic System.
The Federal Aviation Act of 1958. (n.d.). AvStop Online Magazine. Retrieved from http://avstop.com/history/needregulations/act1958.htm
Source: Federal Aviation Administration 1999 Annual Report (FAA, 1999).
Though the information relates only to the year 1999, it is representative of the general trend followed in earlier and later years.
Source: National Transportation Safety Board.