The Journey of a Thousand Miles

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For as long as I can remember, “no news” has been “good news” when it comes to rules and regulations in the world of aviation. From field approval policy to sleep apnea to CBP searches and security theatre, any diktat emanating from Washington or Oklahoma City was sure to involve increasing demands of time and money while diminishing the usefulness and enjoyment of general aviation. That was the trend.

What a breath of fresh air it is, then, to hear of a well-suported and coordinated effort in both houses of Congress to enact legislation which would eliminate formal medical certification for many aviators.

Like the House bill, the new Senate legislation would exempt pilots who make noncommercial VFR flights in aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with no more than six seats from the third-class medical certification process. Pilots would be allowed to carry up to five passengers, fly at altitudes below 14,000 feet msl, and fly no faster than 250 knots.

When the bill was first offered in the House of Representatives as the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act, it seemed like a long shot. Congress is not a known for acting boldly to free Americans from the heavy yoke of regulation, so one could be forgiven for not getting their hopes up. But now things are different: there’s a matching bill in the Senate, the House iteration has 52 co-sponsors, and the Congressional General Aviation Caucus has grown to more than 250 members.

Is it a done deal, then? Not at all. There’s no guarantee of passage or that President Obama would even sign the bill into law. But the sponsors and caucus members represent a good mix from across the political spectrum, and there are no special interests of any significance who benefit from the medical certification machinery, so I believe the prospects are encouraging.

This Pilot Protection Act is exceptional for several reasons. First, it goes far beyond even the historically pie-in-the-sky proposal fronted collectively by AOPA and EAA. When was the last time that happened? I can’t recall a single example. Typically we’ll ask for X and end up feeling extraordinary fortunate to get even half of it.

That AOPA/EAA submission, by the way, has languished on the FAA’s desk for two years and has yet to be acted upon by the agency. If one needed proof of just how sclerotic the bureaucratic machine has become, this is it. The delay is egregious enough to have warranted an official apology from FAA Administrator Huerta.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that this is a legislative move rather than a regulatory one. It’s an important distinction, because regulations are instituted with relative impunity by agencies like the FAA, while Congress passes laws that are not nearly as vulnerable to bureaucratic vagaries. In other words, if the FAA instituted the very same change in medical certification through regulatory channels, they could alter or reverse those improvements just as easily. A law, on the other hand, should prove far more durable since the Feds must comply with it whether they like it or not.

It’s a shame that this common-sense change requires a literal Act of Congress. And what does it say about the FAA that a body with 9% approval rating is coming to the rescue of the private pilot? Were it to remain in the FAA’s corner, this medical exemption would probably never see the light of day. I don’t just mean that it would not be approved, I mean it would never even be acted upon at all.

There is a certain schadenfreude which comes from watching the FAA, which is known for soliciting comments from the aviation industry only to ignore that input, suffer the same fate at the hands of the House and Senate. My only question is: what took so long? The last time Congress lent the industry a helping hand was with the General Aviation Revitalization Act. That was in 1994 — twenty years ago. While I’m thankful they’re finally getting off the bench and into the game, this boost is long overdue. I sincerely hope they will not only see it through, but look for other ways to help bring a uniquely American industry back from the brink.

An easing of the medical certification requirements will not fix all of GA’s woes. But if the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps this will at least get us headed in the right direction.

One final note: if you haven’t called your Representative and Senators to express strong support for H.R. 3708 and S. 2103, respectively, please do so! Unlike FAA employees, these folks are up for re-election in eight months. The closer we get to November, the more likely they are to listen.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2014/03/19/journey/.

4 comments

  1. Well said. While I’ve been following the proposed legislation closely, including AOPA’s commentary on Facebook and elsewhere, for some reason it never occurred to me to contact my legislators. Duh! Will remedy this post-haste. Thanks for suggesting this.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to let your legislators know how you feel! Every voice has an impact.

      One nice thing about AOPA’s advocacy efforts is that they don’t send out a “Call to Action” unless it’s something that of major importance to GA. I can only recall a half dozen or so of them in the last decade.

  2. That’s really interesting, Ron. My first reaction was to think that 3rd class medicals might be worth retaining. On the other hand, my own personal experience was that the stuff that the FAA might have been concerned about was never an issue in my entire flying career and, when I was finally grounded, it was I who grounded myself for reasons that the Faa would never have picked up – a lack of focus and intensity that made me uncomfortable continuing to act as PIC that no exam would ever have been likely to detect. So, at least in my case, the need for a 3rd class medical was superfluous.

    1. Thanks for relating your experience, David. It might be more common that you think. It’s not always the AME that pulls the plug on someone’s flying days. Just as an aircraft owner in many ways knows their airplane better than any A&P ever could, so we know our bodies and capabilities far more intimately than a physician we only see once every few years.

      I should note that even without formal medical certification, that doesn’t mean there needn’t be any standards. It would simply be a self-certification similar to the one we already make each time we fly.

      Nice seeing you the other day, btw!

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