The Aircraft Certification Process under the Federal Aviation Administration

Alexandria Nunn

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

Though the idea of a plane crash or any other incident with air travel is extremely unsettling, only about one accident per 2.5 million flights is fatal. Additionally, plane crashes have about a ninety-five percent survivability rate. The regulations behind aviation are designed to implement the highest safety standards in all aircraft to prevent injury from occurring. The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) that manages commercial and general aviation flights with a mission to provide safe air travel. The FAA is a crucial part of what makes air travel safe.

What are the responsibilities of the FAA?

The FAA is a government agency that is responsible for regulating aviation to promote safety, developing new aviation technology and operating air traffic control and navigation systems. The FAA certifies pilots to ensure that those who are operating an aircraft are skilled and well-trained. The agency also certifies aircraft to ensure that they are secure to transport passengers and goods. Additionally, the FAA is responsible for issuing, suspending or revoking pilot or aircraft certificates and regulating flight inspection standards.

How do aircraft owners comply with FAA requirements to certify their aircraft?

The FAA has over 1,300 engineers, scientists, test pilots, inspectors and other professionals to certify that an aircraft is suitable for flight. The FAA will grant what is called an airworthiness certificate to an aircraft that gives that aircraft the authority to fly. The FAA has the authority to issue a certificate only when the owner of the aircraft first registers the aircraft with the agency, secondly when they submit an application for certification and lastly when the FAA determines that their aircraft is eligible and in a condition for safe operation. Registration with the FAA is crucial because the U.S. dominates the global aviation market. Additionally, registration with the FAA is helpful to establish one central registry. After an aircraft is registered with the agency, there are two different certificates that an aircraft can apply to receive. The airplane can either apply to receive a standard airworthiness certificate or a special airworthiness certificate. A standard airworthiness certificate is used for commercial passenger or cargo operation that is registered in the United States. A special airworthiness certificate, on the other hand, is granted to those aircrafts that are not sufficient to be used in commercial passenger or cargo operations. A special airworthiness certificate can be used to operate a plane that is used for agricultural purposes, aerial surveying, forest and wildlife conservation, or other operations specified by the Administrator.

The certification process includes reviewing methods that will be used to show that the designs and the overall airplane comply with federal standards, conducting ground and flight tests and evaluating the airplane to determine what maintenance the airplane needs. Additionally, the FAA is authorized by law to delegate to a qualified organization or individual the ability to conduct reviews of airplanes on behalf of the agency. The FAA does not allow companies to self-certify their aircrafts. The agency states that they, “[…] always remain directly involved in the testing and certification of any new and novel features and technologies.” The agency has the ability to revoke an aircraft certification as well.

What consequences occur if aircraft owners do not comply with the FAA registration and certification procedures?

The FAA has many offices within the agency, including that of the Office of the Chief Counsel. The Office of the Chief Counsel provides legal services to the FAA as well as other agencies. The office states that, “our primary functions are providing legal advice, reviewing agency action for legal sufficiency, and providing representational services.” The enforcement division of the Office of the Chief Counsel represents the agency in enforcement actions. These actions can be before, “the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA decision maker, and the United States courts of appeals. […] The division initiates legal enforcement actions to address noncompliance including certificate actions, civil penalty actions, and informal procedures and settlements.” Those who do not comply with FAA regulations can be subject to major penalties and a suspension or revocation of any certifications or registrations they may already have. These civil penalties are as large as 400,000 dollars against those that are not individuals or small businesses. However, individuals and small businesses can still receive significant penalties of up to 50,000 dollars for not complying with FAA standards. Though these penalties, suspensions or revocations are possible, cases often settle. When a settlement occurs, those who do not comply with FAA regulations may be able to negotiate for a lesser penalty or an agreement not to revoke or suspend certifications.