Hanging Separately on Medical Reform

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
–Ben Franklin

I’ve spent the last fifteen years telling anyone who would listen that the number one problem general aviation faces is the high cost of flying. Usually that cost is measure in dollars, but time and hassle are substantial expenses as well — especially to the driven, successful types of people that are typically attracted to aviation.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been such a big supporter of third-class medical reform. It’s a tough sell convincing folks to pour their hard-earned time and money into flying when extensive and unexpected medical certification hassles are always a potential threat. And that’s doubly true when the “certification” has not proven to make flying any safer.

It’s ironic that much of the support for medical reform comes from members of Congress; they have a notoriously low approval rating among the electorate. As of this writing, the reform bill has 54 co-sponsors. That’s a majority, but short of the 60 required to allow a vote to proceed.

What’s most disheartening is how much of the opposition to such reform originates from parties inside the aviation community, if for no other reason than, as Ben Franklin said, they’re cutting their own throats in the long run. The latest hit is from the Air Line Pilots Association, which sent a letter to every member of the U.S. Senate strongly opposing third-class medical reform. It feels like a bit of a betrayal. Why else would they wait until a couple of days before the legislation is scheduled to be voted upon in the Senate to launch their attack? Medical reform has been a hot topic in the aviation community for years. Are we supposed to assume the timing is coincidental?

Timing aside, ALPA’s central argument is that “this legislation has the potential to allow medically unfit pilots unfettered access to the national airspace at altitudes up to 18,000 feet, which also includes commercial airline traffic carrying passengers and cargo”. This is demonstrably false. History shows us that civilian aeromedical certification is not related to medical fitness. Let’s look at the evidence:

You can already fly without medical certification

News flash: you can already fly without formal medical certification…

Thousands of Light Sport pilots who have been flying without FAA medical certification since 2004. Tens of thousands of glider pilots have been flying for more than half a century with the same freedom — and if you know anything about flying sailplanes, it can be far more physically and mentally challenging than operating a powered aircraft. Glider pilots with stay aloft for many hours and have been known to reach altitudes that even the airlines cannot touch. FAA flight instructors have long been able to go aloft and teach without medical certification. Who would argue that teaching pilots is not a critical flying activity?

There is no history of medical incapacitation or of medically-related accidents for any of these groups that I am aware of.

It’s ironic that ALPA complains about the shortage of pilots while opposing something which has the potential to revitalize the general aviation industry which produces most of their members. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! One gets the impression that ALPA considers flying an airliner to be the only truely important form of flying. It’s myopic to think one area of our industry could flourish while the largest segment — GA — withers on the vine.

From what I’ve seen on social media, ALPA is tone deaf in both ears, ignoring the opinions of their members and irritating the largest, most influential aviation organization in the country. The Air Line Pilots Association has about 52,000 members. General aviation’s two largest organizations boast 400,000 (AOPA) and 175,000 (EAA), respectively.

If ALPA is successful in derailing the medical reform we’ve been struggled toward for more than three years, not only will they earn the enmity of a half million American general aviation pilots, but they might find themselves on the receiving end of the same treatment next time they want something from Congress. We know how to write letters, too.

  16 comments for “Hanging Separately on Medical Reform

  1. stevensokol
    July 27, 2015 at 5:30 am

    This past Saturday morning Sen. Jim Inhofe, Rep. Sam Graves, EAA’s Jack Pelton and others gave a briefing on this issue at Oshkosh. There were a large number of ALPA pilots in the audience, none of whom had heard anything about this issue from their union reps. The speakers indicated that this was very much a political move. Inhofe went so far as to posite that the FAA had somehow pushed the union to take this stand. Do any of your ALPA friends have an explanation for this? The other two major pilots unions are in favor of aeromedical reform.

    • graeme
      July 27, 2015 at 11:08 am

      So look, we are going to have fore and against. The Flight Schools think “great” The manufacturers think “Great” I’m sure all Av med Examiners are against. I’m trying to understand how it affects the Airline Industry if we do without. If they care so much, why cant they make it a Co policy instead of FAA mandate.

      • July 27, 2015 at 11:45 am

        Actually there are quite a few Aviation Medical Examiners who favor reform. My AME is one of them. My previous one supported it, as did the one before him (you might know the name: Marvin Shapiro). What all these AMEs have in common is that they are GA pilots.

        Not all AMEs are on board, that’s for sure. But some prominent members of the aviation medical examiner community have spoken out publicly in support of reform, including Dr. Brent Blue.

        ALPA is trying to convince senators that medical reform means yahoo pilots like yourself will be buzzing around their airliners, having heart attacks, and crashing into them. Ridiculous. It’s a scare tactic which is at odds with the facts I highlighted above: GA populations who have been flying for decades without formal medical certification show no higher instances of incapacitation than those who carry the little white scrap of paper around in their wallets.

        I’m not sure ALPA even truly believes what’s in their letter. But people who are not involved in aviation might think it sounds pretty good. That’s why we have to get active and let our representatives know where we stand.

        • Graeme
          August 4, 2015 at 4:44 pm

          I do know that AME… Hopefully this changes for the better

    • July 27, 2015 at 11:28 am

      I’ve been “on the road” flying, so I have only communicated with a couple of ALPA-member friends thus far. Like the ones you referenced from the Oshkosh briefing, they knew nothing about it and indicated that the union was at odds with their own personal position on medical reform. Of course, both these guys come from a general aviation background and are still involved in GA, so I’m not surprised.

      I don’t know if there’s any truth to Inhofe’s assertion or if it’s just a conspiracy theory. Huerta did say that there were “major forces” within government which were heavily opposed to any change in medical certification requirements. As I understand it, the issue has left the FAA’s desk and is now with the DOT, who is doing exactly nothing. That’s why he suggested pilots contact their senators and congressmen.

      It’s probably difficult for buraeaucrats to openly fight the people’s elected representatives, especially when it’s crystal clear that those reps are attempting to effect a very popular change. So I suppose getting a third party like ALPA to do their work for them might be one way of fighting this. ALPA seems to view general aviation as an annoyance using “their” airspace and getting in their way. I doubt that accurately represents the viewpoint of their average member.

  2. July 27, 2015 at 6:12 am

    Maybe Congress should tell the FAA to require more mental exams on 1st Class Physicals

    • July 27, 2015 at 11:32 am

      I agree that ALPA is going to end up regretting their stand on medical reform. If it goes down because of their opposition, the negative feelings will be foisted primarily in their direction. Even if it survives, I doubt the hundreds of thousands of aviators and other certificate holders who are involved in and love general aviation will forget. I hope for ALPA’s sake that they never need general aviation’s support, because they burned that bridge pretty thoroughly.

      • Eric Jaderborg
        July 29, 2015 at 9:54 am

        They’re especially going to regret it when some publicity-seeking serpent…er, I mean “servant”…of the People comes forward to demand extensive (and expensive) psychological testing for a Class 1 Medical (post-German Wings). When that happens, ALPA is going to want us all to rush to the defense of its poor, beleaguered members, at which time I would be tempted to tell them all to “take a flying you-know-what at the moon”–except that in this tiny room of aviation, when the brown stuff hits the ceiling fan, we all tend to get splattered.

        Can’t you just see someone attaching an amendment to PBR 2, though: a poison pill requiring the FAA to force anyone seeking a Class 1 (or even a Class 2) to get a psychiatric evaluation once a year? (And not because they’re crazy about airplanes, either). I mean, why not? After all, Class 1 holders have to get a useless EKG once a year (which costs about as much as an hour on the couch), and it’s well known that just about anyone can come out squeaky clean on one of those and die from a heart attack 15 minutes later.

        Make no mistake: Senator Inhofe is using his position to pick a very personal bone he has with the FAA. (I mean…really…come on, Senator…the FAA tampering with a piece of pending legislation by pressuring a pilot’s union to come out against it? You have proof of this, or is that just fear-mongering? Can you imagine the leadership of a pilot’s union caving-in to anything the FAA tries to cram down its throat? What’s the “quid pro quo” in that? No, what we need right now is straight talk and action, not another of the Senator’s wild conspiracy theories.) Nevertheless, some of his provisions–notably Class 3 Medical reform, as well as the proposal to make the FAA justify 44709 re-examinations under a narrower set of criteria–are good ones, and long overdue. The opposition to medical reform, however, isn’t the only thing holding back the bill; it’s some of Inhofe’s loonier proposals to hobble the FAA’s ability to conduct legitimate investigations. Several of the Senator’s colleagues are nervous about binding the agency hand-and-foot, and especially about loading-up an already over-burdened federal court system with administrative appeals. If those provisions were taken out of the bill, I believe that PBR 2 would sail through–ALPA be damned (which, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad idea all by itself).

        • July 29, 2015 at 11:01 am

          Loading up the federal court system with administrative appeals is an inevitable effect of aviation’s heavy regulatory burden and the FAA’s institutional preference of enforcement over education and safety.

          Regardless of the reason (and I’d be the last to defend him for that landing snafu), I’m kind of glad Inhofe has a personal bone to pick with the FAA. When you or I have an issue with government, we are just out of luck. Shout at the rain until we’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day we’ll be crushed by the massive bureaucracy every single time. When a U.S. senator finds themselves in that situation, they can do something about it. I like that. It’s about time for a little schadenfreude…

          • Eric Jaderborg
            July 29, 2015 at 11:42 am

            Maybe; maybe not. You’re talking about sending a case load of highly technical matters for a de novo hearing to a federal judge who probably knows nothing about aviation. If so, there’s no point in even having an NTSB hearing. I don’t think the time and expense of going before a federal judge who may know far less about aviation than an NTSB Law Judge–and who may actually have less sympathy for an individual airman–will necessarily result in any more justice. Aviation is far from the only regulated industry, but you don’t see every last case land in a federal courthouse for a de novo review. So, it’s not inevitable unless we structure it that way.

            The FAA’s enforcement posture isn’t anything like it used to be. And I don’t know what to say about the comment of preferring enforcement over education and safety…except that it just isn’t true. When I think about safety education, I think about the FAAST team, and the cases of remedial training in lieu of enforcement that have actually helped errant airmen get their heads back into the game. When I think about “caring about safety,” I think about the thousands of FAA people behind the scenes doing the unsexy things that keep us from getting killed even more often than we already do: things like TERPS work, obstruction evaluation, operational approvals of all kinds, special instrument approach procedures, technical operations, flight check, and, yes, the unpopular but necessary job of enforcing the rules when enforcement is required.

            It’s real easy to paint the whole institution with a tar brush. Blanket statements like the one you just made will get you cheers at every echo chamber rally of folks who are already fond of throwing stones at their favorite enemy and who are all-too-ready to believe anything bad they hear, even if it’s wrong–especially when they’re already long on prejudice and short on facts. What’s tough is to get down into the weeds and talk about cases and complicated situations. If you want to take on the FAA about something, by all means do it. But do it with facts and with precision, and not with a sledge hammer. It’s a lot harder to effect change than to just bitch.

            As far as the Senator’s “snafu,” I wouldn’t have anything to say about that except that, like most other things that go on out of the public view, there’s no doubt a lot more to that story than you or I will ever know. I, too, am glad to see him support Class 3 medical reform–whatever his true motivations may be. What worries me is that by demanding a bunch of things that will never pass, the Senator may smother his own baby in the crib–and our hopes for reform along with it.

          • July 29, 2015 at 1:13 pm

            Fair comment. I’ve often said the FAA employees I encounter seem, by and large, to be intelligent hard working people while the institution itself is a serious mess. We can argue about why that is, but the regulatory morass has got to have something to do with it. There are many worthy efforts at the agency. I’m on record as impressed with the freedoms of Part 91, safety programs like ASRS, publications like the FAA Safety Briefing, and so on. But so much of that lives in the shadow of their sclerotic response to 30 years of declining pilot numbers, aircraft production, equipment mandates, and continued support of things like third class medical certification.

            I hadn’t considered that Inhofe’s effort might be derailed by aiming too high. I just assume that everything in PBOR2 was such small potatoes to the folks in Congress that they really wouldn’t care one way or the other. In terms of news coverage, it hasn’t rated so much as a blip compared with the Iran deal, Ex/Im Bank reauthorization, or other attachments to the highway bill.

          • Eric Jaderborg
            July 29, 2015 at 1:57 pm

            One final comment, then I’ll leave you alone and let you get back to flying: not rating even a blip of coverage in the press might be a good thing. Remember that a magician mainly works his craft by distracting the audience. Keep them looking over THERE while you turn a chicken into an elephant over HERE!

  3. graeme
    July 27, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Thank you for bringing this to light for me Ron-
    I had no idea the ALPA would be opposing such a thing. Did they provide their reasons other than incursions? Interestingly enough, Drivers of passengers in cars don’t have to go to a Dr to do such and driving has its risks too.

  4. July 27, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    As of right now a third class medical would not keep a pilot out of the flight levels. Perhaps I am missing something in the proposed reform, but it seems that the reform would limit non-medically-certified pilots to altitudes below 14,000ft. Am I missing something? Or did ALPA, when they composed their letter and warned of “unsafe” pilots as high as 18,000ft?

    • July 27, 2015 at 4:35 pm

      You’re right. Section 2(a)(4)(b) of S.571 limits altitude to 14,000 feet. I don’t see why it shouldn’t extend up to the Class A floor, because it’s all Class E airspace. But I suppose it has to do with pilots operating under this rule flying without O2. In a pinch, i’d rather have a pilot up above that altitude with the oxygen on rather than staying below an artificial limit dealing with weather unnecessarily. But that’s a small nit to pick.Thanks for pointing that out, Jonathan. Yet another way ALPA gets their facts wrong….

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