The agency was established to run a broad Air Traffic Control (ATC) system and to certify aircraft designs, airline training programs and maintenance.
The Air Traffic Control (ATC) system is responsible for managing air traffic. It is run by the FAA with a twofold purpose: to maintain a safe separation of aircrafts flying over the US and to make aircraft traffic to move as efficiently as possible. The ATC is actually a good place in the airline industry to appreciate its systems-like structure. The ATC organizes all the flights in the country (therefore, implementing a centralized architecture for the industry) and was created based on the idea of a broad and nation-wide system of scheduled flights, which did not existed before.
The ATC comprises four types of facilities: airport towers, terminal radars, en route centers and flight service stations. Airport towers look after planes while they taxi to and from runways and during take-off and landing. Terminal radars monitor flights during the climb and the descent phases of the flight. There are 236 of them in the US. The en route centers keep track of aircrafts while they are en route during the high-altitude cruise phase of the flights. Finally, flight service stations are information centers for pilots flying in and out of small cities and rural areas.
A keyA key facility in overseeing the entire ATC system is the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC), located in Herndon, VA. It looks for situations that might create bottlenecks and setups up management plans to control the traffic into and out the troubled sectors. The goal of such a plan is to keep traffic at the trouble spots manageable for the controllers. The importance of the ATCSCC becomes clear when one acknowledges that, on average, there are 900 daily flight delays of 15 minutes or more, which cost to the airlines and customers around $5 Billion USD a year.
However, the ATC model is a centralized system architecture that many argue will not be able to cope with the saturation of the airspace and the increase in traffic delays that are expected to take place in the near future. The big challenge for the industry is the design and implementation of a distributed air-flight management system that could increase the throughput of the aviation system keeping the safety levels unchanged. This approach is called Free Flight and is currently being researched by the FAA and the aviation community.
Free Flight is expected to improve significantly the efficiency of the National Airspace System. With Free Flight, pilots operating under Instrument Flight rules (IFR) will be able to select the aircraft's course, speed, and altitude in real time. Today, pilots define a flight plan with the ATC, prior to take-off and have to follow the route specified in that plan. Any deviation from that route must be pre-approved by ATC. With Free Flight, pilots will be able to change route, speed and altitude to achieve the desired results, notifying the ATC. Pilot's flexibility will mainly be restricted only to ensure separation and to prevent unauthorized entry into special use airspace.
The Free Flight concept is based on two airspace zones, protected and alert, the sizes of which are based on the aircraft's speed, performance characteristics, and communications, navigation, and surveillance equipment. The protected zone, the one closest to the