Government efforts to improve safety


The U.S. government played little role in promoting or regulating safety in the early days of aviation. As the growth of the aviation industry resulted in increasing public awareness of incidents and accidents involving aircraft, Congress eventually passed the Air Commerce Act of 1926.

This legislation charged the Department of Commerce with the operation and maintenance of the airway system, and to provide safety through a system of regulation. It also granted authority to the Secretary of Air Commerce to investigate, record, and make public the cause of accidents in civil air navigation. In 1931 and 1937, strengthening of the legislation and associated regulations established the first standardized methodology for the investigation of accidents and incidents.

In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act was passed, establishing three agencies to oversee aviation:

  1. Civil Aeronautics Authority—The Civil Aeronautics Authority’s role was to legislate the safety and economics aspects of the air transportation industry.
  2. Administrator of Aviation—The Administrator’s role was to carry out the safety policies of the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
  3. Air Safety Board—The Air Safety Board’s role was to investigate aircraft accidents.

4. In 1940, an amendment to the Civil Aeronautics Act reduced these three entities to two. The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) was established as an independent agency to exercise judicial and legislative authority over civil aviation, and to control the economic regulations applicable to air carriers. The CAB’s Bureau of Aviation had direct responsibility for the investigation of aircraft accidents. The second agency established in 1940 was the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), which was placed under the Department of Commerce. The CAA’s responsibility under this legislation was the execution of safety regulations, including enforcement and promotion of aviation safety.

Predominantly as a result of several mid-air collisions, including a spectacular crash involving a TWA Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 over the Grand Canyon, and other factors, Congress enacted the Federal Aviation Act in 1958.  This legislation was similar to the Civil Aeronautics Act in many ways, but differed in that it greatly expanded the government’s authority over aviation safety. The former CAA became an independent Federal Aviation Agency. The safety rulemaking powers were transferred from the CAB to the Federal Aviation Agency, resulting in that agency having both rulemaking and enforcement authority—a broad power that persists to this day. The CAB retained its role in accident investigation under this Act, as well as the economic regulation of air carriers.

In 1966 the Department of Transportation was formed and the Federal Aviation Administration  was incorporated into this new cabinet level agency. The CAB was relegated to a role responsible only for the economics of the industry (until its phase-out in 1985), and a new agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was formed. The NTSB became a fully independent agency in 1975, and is the single entity responsible for the conduct of transportation accidents.

Though the specific agency responsible for aviation safety has changed through the years, and the sophistication of the tools available to the investigator has increased tremendously, up until recently the basic methodology had changed little. From the Secretary of Air Commerce, through the CAA and CAB, through the Federal Aviation Administration and now the NTSB, the primary method of research concerning the mitigation of risk in aviation has been reactive—post-event analyses of incidents and accidents.


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