Is the FAA’s photo ID proposal DOA?

No doubt you’ve heard by now that Congress has ordered the FAA to add photos and biometric data to all pilot certificates, which would have to be renewed every eight years with a new photo at an out-of-pocket cost to you of $22. Or maybe it’s $50. Or maybe it’s more than that. Nobody’s really sure. Not even the FAA, apparently.

The agency issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) last November adding the photo ID requirement and creating the fee structure for pilot certificates. Some would say it was a hastily issued NPRM, given the fact that Congress was basically breathing down the FAA's neck, telling the agency to get it done or else.

Well, the comment period on the NPRM just closed. And, boy, were there comments.

First, a little of what’s included in the NPRM’s fine print. In the document the FAA proposes a maximum fee for the new certificate of $22. That is, until FAA reauthorization passes in the Senate (hey, didn’t that just happen?). Then the fee rises to $50. But that cost doesn’t include the price of the 2-by-2-inch photo you’ll be required to submit—that’s right, on photo paper; no electronic images allowed. (Never mind that digital images are good enough for the Transportation Security Administration when screening foreign pilot applicants from places like Yemen or Pakistan; the FAA is insistent on wanting print photos, probably on Kodak Kodachrome film, no less.)

Flight instructors are the most upset by the proposed rules. The National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI) and Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) have submitted responses voicing their concerns over the significant cost and time burdens the requirements could impose. The "Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention" act passed by Congress in 2004 requires the FAA to create new pilot certificates that include photographs. While the NAFI and SAFE support the FAA’s efforts to comply with the law, the groups say the agency is going about it the wrong way.

The NAFI noted that there are potential inconsistencies between the proposed rule changes and the law that Congress passed. One of them includes a six- to eight-week delay between application and issuance of a photo certificate, which could unnecessarily prolong the time interval between a student starting training and soloing (the first time they’d need that certificate).

The NAFI and SAFE also point out that the proposal could require pilots to shell out big bucks for certificates when they obtain multiple certificates or ratings in rapid succession because they would have to renew their certificate on each occasion. (NAFI proposes the issuance one “pilot identification certificate” that would be good for eight years and be accompanied by a traditional certificate providing a listing of a pilot’s limitations and privileges.)

The groups also say the NPRM is unclear on the point of whether the proposed changes would apply to flight instructor certificates. Because a CFI certificate is valid only when accompanied by a pilot certificate, inclusion of a photograph on a CFI certificate would represent a double burden without any additional security benefit. Also, the CFI certificate must be renewed every two years—again, at a cost of $50 (or is it $100?) plus the cost of that pretty photo.

The driving force behind the NPRM was the strong reaction of Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) to non-compliance by the FAA with the 2004 act that gave the agency a one-year deadline to implement the photo ID process. According to the act, the licenses must be tamper resistant, include a photo of the airman, and have the ability to accommodate biometrics such as fingerprint data. Shortly after Mica issued a scathing letter to the heads of the FAA, TSA, and Homeland Security, the FAA responded with its NPRM.

AOPA has weighed in, too, urging the FAA to withdraw its proposal, saying it adds “no safety or security benefit, while adding substantial costs to pilots and the federal government.” A letter signed by SAFE chairman Doug Stewart, meanwhile, offers the FAA this sage advice: “Stop the process now. Take the time to think it out. Engage the input and assistance of the aviation community. Then do it right.”

Sounds like the sensible thing to do.


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