Establishing, implementing, and overseeing the standards for design, production, operation, and maintenance activities is the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) most important mission. The critical role of implementation—known as certification—ensures public confidence in the safety of the system for business and leisure travel. The high level of aviation safety in the United States is the result of continuous improvement of these elements by industry and government over many decades.

Strict adherence to these standards helps maintain the strong demand for U.S. aviation products worldwide. This is true not only for aircraft design and production, but also in operations, maintenance, and air traffic control modernization. Due in part to these high standards, aviation is a strong contributor to the U.S. economy and is responsible for 5.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The aerospace industry’s trade surplus of $82.5 billion is the largest within the U.S. economy.

Despite continuous work on improving the certification system, industry stakeholders and experts have raised concerns about the efficiency and functionality of FAA’s certification and approval processes for products, operations, maintenance, and other areas. Without a strong and agile agency that can both maintain and improve safety, the continuity of the American aviation industry as a global leader is at risk.

The Eno Center for Transportation Aviation Working Group brought together key stakeholders to study this issue and propose pragmatic, innovative, policy solutions to improve the FAA’s certification processes while maintaining aviation’s impeccable safety record. This report is the product of that effort and focuses on three areas of certification:

  1. Aviation products and their components;
  2. Air traffic control and air traffic controllers;
  3. Repair stations.

The report includes an overview of these areas and a historical analysis that examines over 35 years of FAA certification processes. By working closely with the industry, FAA has achieved high safety levels, and the focus has shifted to the certification procedures themselves, their efficiency and effectiveness.

Reform is needed because the aviation industry is rapidly changing and growing, and the FAA is not equipped to respond to these challenges. The agency must cope with new technologies while maintaining high standards for safety, at a time where the availability of government resources is uncertain and demand from the aviation industry is high. The FAA must follow national and international best practices for establishing and adhering to risk-informed certification, shifting its paradigm from the current prescriptive certification system.

The FAA also needs to expand the use of delegation, a practice where the agency delegates certain discretionary functions, including certification findings to qualified persons, e.g., manufacturers. This will allow the agency to focus its limited resources on the areas that need the most attention from a safety perspective. To improve consistency in the application and interpretation of regulations and guidance, a body of government officials, labor representatives, industry employees, and independent experts should be established to collaboratively advise the agency on issues of safety and compliance, as well as application and interpretations of regulations. Similarly, certification and surveillance of repair stations should be streamlined to ease the burden on industry and government.

To implement such reforms, the FAA needs to work with the industry and focus on the outcome of its actions, measuring the impacts of the reforms it undertakes. It also needs to improve workforce education and training both in government and industry. These steps are critical for success, as the FAA will need a strong workforce capable of understanding systems engineering and collaborating with industry to advance safety. The focus on safety outcomes, rather than design, will also help the FAA cope with the demands for certification of new products and airspace users like drones and commercial space. These safety outcomes must be clearly defined.

Today, the FAA has a double mission. It is the provider of air traffic control and oversees the safety of the aviation industry, while also regulating itself as a provider. With an eventual spin-off of the air traffic control function, the agency can focus on its core mission: overseeing the safety of the national airspace. This is an inherently governmental function that should remain with the FAA. Freed of its role as an operator, the agency would be able to provide more effective certification, implementation, and safety oversight.

Overseeing safety is the most important role of the FAA and should be the focus of its efforts. While there is no doubt that the United States’ stellar safety record is due, in large part, to the agency’s establishing and implementing certification standards and oversight, action is needed today. As the FAA evolves to meet the new and growing demands from the expanding aviation sector, there is no better time to take steps that will ensure the American system remains the safest in the world and its industry the most competitive.

Additional information can be found in the report appendices here.