Jumpseat: Pilot's Bill of Rights 2 and Medical Reform

Does the legislation create new, unintended issues?

Senator Jim Inhofe
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe promoted the legislation that would become the Pilot's Bill of Rights 2.Sen. Jim Inhofe

On October 21, 2010, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, an experienced pilot of 11,000 hours, landed his Cessna 340 on Runway 13/31 at the Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport despite the presence of the appropriate X markings designating the surface as closed.

To say that the senator ruined the day of various construction workers operating equipment to repair the runway would be an understatement. None of us will really know just how close his airplane came to those people.

Sen. Inhofe indicated he had failed to read the notam that would have alerted him to the runway closure. Rather than certificate action, the FAA’s resolution required four hours of remedial training in the areas considered remiss. The experience of the FAA enforcement process that put the senator’s license in jeopardy left a lasting impression on him. He was inspired to promote legislation that became the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, currently revised as the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 (PBR2).

Regardless of your opinion about the incident, or that Sen. Inhofe used his influence to minimize the punitive consequences, his experience was the catalyst for positive change. As an airline pilot, if I face an FAA enforcement action under the current system, my entire career is at risk whether I am in the cockpit of a 777 or my Decathlon.

So, before I get into the contentious aspects of third-class medical reform, it’s beneficial to understand the changes involved with the FAA certificate enforcement process and other protections afforded to certain groups. These are the areas of the legislation that include big changes but have received less attention.

The big deal in my book concerns the ability of any person who has been adversely affected by the denial, suspension or revocation of a certificate, or has been imposed a civil penalty, to have the right to appeal to the NTSB or to the U.S. District Court. In essence the amendment provides for a more objective process rather than allowing the FAA to be the judge and executioner. In addition, a “covered certificate” includes more than just pilot’s licenses. Repair station, air carrier, airworthiness, airport operating and air navigation facility are just some of the other certificates included.

Not surprisingly, considering Sen. Inhofe’s incident, the FAA can’t impose enforcement action for a violation of a notam involving airspace system information until certain improvements to the notifications are implemented. Some of these improvements have already occurred, inclusive of better notam organization.

In addition, individuals acting on behalf of the FAA, such as check airmen or aviation medical examiners, are shielded from liability through civil action while in performance of their related duties. As a former check airman for my airline, I consider this a beneficial stress reliever. When conducting an initial operating experience flight with a pilot new to the airplane, it was a huge obligation to not only be held responsible for the training but also to be held accountable as the PIC.

And for those pilots and operational personnel who act on behalf of a volunteer nonprofit aviation organization that benefits the public, such as the Corporate Angel Network, for instance, their participation is also shielded from liability, provided the appropriate licenses and insurance are maintained.

The actual language of PBR2 is more comprehensive in regard to procedural reforms, but suffice it to say many of the changes better define the responsibility of the FAA in an enforcement process. With the proposed legislation, much of the documentation would be transparent to all parties, inclusive of ATC recordings as an example. All good stuff.

Unfortunately when the medical reform aspect of PBR2 is discussed, that’s where the bows and arrows are drawn. The leadership of the Air Line Pilots Association seems to be the biggest target in the ongoing controversy. Although I disagree with ALPA’s premise regarding its fear that hordes of general aviation pilots will medically collapse at the controls while flying in shared air carrier airspace, I have some trepidations about the legislation.

First, I’m a card-carrying Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association member and airplane owner. Second, I am not an ALPA member (although yes, some of my best friends are ALPA pilots). My airline has its own union with 15,000 members. As a matter of fact, my union is on the list of the 16 aviation organizations that endorsed PBR2 with what has been labeled as the Manchin Amendment of the bill. Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a GA pilot himself, contributed the compromises proposed for the third-class medical.

My union leadership is indifferent with its priority focused more on spending membership dues to promote the pilot’s rights aspect of the legislation. Although I agree with this focus, I have personal concerns that the proposal will create new issues.

In a way, the amendment defines a new classification of pilots. If you fly an airplane with five passenger seats or fewer, its max gross weight doesn’t exceed 6,000 pounds, and it stays below 18,000 feet and doesn’t exceed 250 knots, the new rules are applicable. Don’t these performance requirements discriminate a different standard? If this is the effect, then perhaps a new FAA license should be considered.

Once the law is enacted, the proposed legislation allows a pilot who has maintained at least a third-class medical within the last 10 years to never visit an aviation medical examiner again. Only two obligations remain: First, pilots have to visit their personal physician once every four years and make an entry as such in their logbooks. A form has to be completed by the physician, indicating a checklist of exam items. The results of the visit are immaterial and not required to be FAA-reported. Second, every two years an online aeromedical course must be accomplished.

I’m not fond of my AME visits either, but what’s the point of visiting a general practitioner? Assuming the doctor is made aware of your pilot status through the new examination form, is he or she qualified to pass judgment on your ability to fly airplanes?

Although honesty and integrity are qualities most pilots possess, would an aviator make the entry in his or her logbook knowing that an exam could, or did, reveal some potentially disqualifying medical condition, and then ground themselves from flying?

And I’m all for continuing education courses; they’ve been part of my career for over 31 years. But exactly how will an online aeromedical course substitute for a third-class medical? Why not make the course a requirement for all licenses? As an ATP-licensed pilot, rather than stress over passing my first-class exam, having a little knowledge on disqualifying medical conditions would be of great assistance.

Within the Manchin Amendment, provisions have been made in regard to special-issuance medical certificates. Unless a pilot’s condition relative to the special issuance has deteriorated within the 10-year period of when the law is enacted, that individual still qualifies under the guidelines of the new legislation. However, for a pilot that falls outside the 10-year period or who is a first-time applicant with the “big three” medical conditions, a special issuance is required. Without getting into specifics, the conditions involve serious cardiovascular history, neurological problems and psychological disorders. Once again, unless an affected pilot already has medical data recorded with the FAA, the new legislation relies on the honor system.

I am well aware that, to some degree, truthfulness has always been required. Certainly under current law the potential still exits in failing to disclose prescriptions, medical professional visits and so on. But under the proposed legislation, 10 years is a long time, especially for those of us having reached the age when health issues become a typical part of our lives. And never having to be examined by an AME, ever? Hmm … it doesn’t leave me feeling warm and fuzzy.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all in favor of finding ways for people to continue their passion of flying airplanes, especially when it involves a reduction in costs. As an airplane owner, my hand is always up for spending less money. But aviation is expensive. It always has been. In that regard, maintaining and monitoring our health seems like a small price to pay.

If this legislation is to pass, let’s not forget our 
responsibility for the people that matter most: 
our passengers.