Postflight: What Exactly is the FAA’s Role? — an editor's perspective

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing

I don’t like to repeat myself, but in view of the theme for this year-closing issue of FAA Safety Briefing, it seems appropriate to update a piece I first wrote in 2009. I’ve now been with the FAA — and with the Flight Standards Service — for more than a dozen years. Although the process of planning and writing for this magazine does provide a wider view of the incredible range of FAA responsibilities and activities, I don’t claim to have a handle on all the functions performed by the agency’s 47,000 employees. For the GA community, though, I can summarize the role of the Flight Standards Service and other parts of the FAA’s Aviation Safety Organization in terms of three interlocking functions: setting standards, issuing certification on the basis of those standards, and ensuring continued operational safety.


The FAA creates and, as necessary, amends rules and regulations that provide the safety standards for people, organizations, and equipment operating in the National Airspace System (NAS). You might be most familiar with the standards (rules) for airman certification, as outlined in Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 61 and, with the advent of the small UAS (sUAS) regulations, part 107 standards for the new remote pilot certificate. The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) and the Practical Test Standards (PTS) are “regulatory support” documents that explain implementation of these standards.

For aircraft and their associated parts, products, and appliances, the standards are set through regulations like 14 CFR part 23 (Airworthiness Standards: Normal, Utility, Acrobatic, And Commuter Category Airplanes) and part 43 (Maintenance, Preventive Maintenance, Rebuilding, and Alteration), and described in documents like the Type Certificate Data Sheet (TCDS), Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), and Technical Standard Orders (TSOs).

As you probably know, the FAA has spent the past few years working to update part 23 and is nearing completion of this important effort. The FAA is also hard at work developing the standards for third class medical reform as directed by Congress.


On the basis of established standards, the FAA issues and renews certificates that authorize people, organizations, and equipment to operate in the NAS. Your pilot certificate(s) and ratings are issued to certify that you meet the standards set out in regulations like 14 CFR part 61. Operators like part 141 pilot schools have FAA certificates, as do air carriers.

The FAA also issues and renews certificates that allow manufacturers to build airframes, engines, propellers, components, and parts as well as the certificates that authorize organizations to provide maintenance services.

The process for obtaining certification can be complex, especially for commercial operators like air carriers. That’s because they have to demonstrate to the FAA — in considerable detail — exactly how they will comply with all applicable regulations.

Continued Operational Safety

Continued Operational Safety (COS) is actually the largest of the three core functions. The goal is clear: the FAA’s COS activities ensure that existing certificate holders continue to meet the safety requirements, standards, and regulations that formed the basis for their original certificate or certificate renewal.

The FAA accomplishes this responsibility through safety surveillance and oversight programs, audits, evaluations, air traffic safety oversight, education and training, research, and accident/incident investigation. The new Compliance Philosophy, the enabling guidance for the Administrator’s Risk-based Decision-making approach, and Safety Management Systems (SMS) are all aimed at the COS function.

COS is also intended to ensure the integrity of a product throughout its service life. COS thus involves problem prevention, service monitoring, and corrective actions. All these actions cycle back into modification of standards, whether for pilot/mechanic certification, for a product’s design and production, and for things like STCs and airworthiness directives (ADs).

Complicated? Yes. Complex? Definitely. But that’s what it takes to maintain the world’s safest airspace system — and we are working hard to keep it that way.

Susan Parson (, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.

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