Why is simple so hard?

July 15, 2013 by Craig Fuller

Every pilot I know is looking for ways to keep flying affordable. That’s especially true for those of us who fly for fun. When the return on investment comes in the form of personal enjoyment, every penny saved is a penny we can put toward that next flight.

At AOPA, we know how important controlling costs is to our members, and we’re always looking for ways to help. So more than a year ago, AOPA and EAA jointly filed a petition for a third-class medical exemption. The idea is that pilots who fly certain types of aircraft for many common types of operations would no longer need a third-class medical. Instead, with a current driver’s license they could self-assess their fitness to fly and participate in a recurrent online education program to help them make sound decisions about their health and flying.

It sounds simple enough, and it is. The driver’s license medical standard already exists and has been used safely by Sport pilots for a decade. In fact, a study by the Air Safety Institute showed that there were no accidents caused by pilot medical incapacitation between 2004 and 2011 for pilots using the driver’s license medical standard. None. Zero.

Extending the exemption would save pilots, and the government, a significant amount of money. How much money? We conservatively estimate pilots would save $241 million over 10 years and the government would save another $11 million over the same period.

So why are we still waiting for an answer from the FAA more than a year after we submitted the proposal? Good question.

If you read my column in the July issue of AOPA Pilot, you know my concerns over the inaction of federal regulatory agencies. Too often we see the FAA and other agencies lagging behind the realities of modern flying. Too often, it seems these agencies are handling sticky issues by deciding not to decide.

The evidence in favor of the third-class medical exemption is strong. We have flown similar aircraft under similar conditions for a decade with an outstanding safety record. More than 16,000 pilots have filed comments with the FAA in support of the petition. Sequestration is forcing the FAA to find cost savings, and this certainly seems to be a quick way for the agency to cut a few million dollars from its budget.

And yet we still don’t have an answer. In fact, the FAA won’t even tell us when we can expect an answer. It’s a classic case of taking something simple and making it harder than it has to be.

We don’t know when the FAA will make a decision. But we do know we won’t let the issue rest. I want to thank our AOPA members who wrote in by the thousands to give us this opportunity to make flying easier and more affordable. I promise you our regulatory affairs team will continue to promote this exemption and push the FAA to move forward. At the same time, we won’t ignore the larger problem of regulatory inaction and overreaction that drives up our costs without adding to our safety.

  • Daniel Reed

    Could it be that FAA is loathe to relinquish their means of collecting data about private pilots DUI violations?

  • Ted

    It’s too simple. It makes sense. Therefore it’s suspect.

  • James Corkern

    This is the same reason a installed certified IFR GPS cost $15000 and a hinge for an oil access door cost $400+ on a cessna. Too much regulation and inspections. Inspections don’t make things safer, doing the right things with the best technology makes us safer.

    I would prefer to have a panel certified GPS but for a 172 that is way too expensive so I fly vor’s and portables.

    The 3rd class medical is held up by the same type of inspection. No one wants to be responsible for the legal battle that will follow on the first incident. To delay means to make NO decision and therefore not being responsible.

  • http://n/a Harold L. James

    I think the reluctance to authorize a simple 3rd Class medical self monitoring system, is a reluctance of some anonymous bureaucrat to be on record, that he or she approved this much desired modification to regulations lest there is some untoward event that they could possibly be criticized for suggesting, or being even remotely blamed for permitting. Having worked for a Quasi Government Organization I know how quickly those at the top assign blame downwards until they are able to reach someone sufficiently lowly to blame for the higher up’s possible errors in judgement. Another way of saying passing the buck starts at the top..
    Meantime prices and costs rise annually with Avgas close to $6 per U.S. Gallon at some California G.A. Airports. The simple Saturday Morning Traditional Breakfast or $100 Hamburger Flight meeting former joke, now costs very close to the $400 Hamburger Flight. Too many pilots, especially those on fixed Incomes have simply given up. Go to any outlying G.A. Airport and just note the startling lack of activity compared to even a few years ago. Starting flying in the 1950’s was simple and cheap, but today young people prefer to get their adventures & skills vicariously through the Internet. Perhaps we may get even more purely Mechanical Pilot’s in charge of aircraft the size of Boeing 777’s and A-380’s even Captaining such large aircraft purely through Computer Aided Training with no real ‘Feel’ or actual ‘Experience’ in flying a real airplane – as is the quite possible recent scenario at SFO where a large Transport was being flown by rote rather than intelligent pilot input.


    If the issue has political capital, this administration will go to no ends to extend its reach, e.g., the ongoing IRS scandal. However, when it comes to making a decision that is logical, cost effective and greatly beneficial to the aviation community: forget it. Aircraft owners are presumed to be in the top 5% economically, ergo not eligible for governmental largess or benefits. I hope the AOPA and EAA will stay on this issue and, at some point down the road, logic will prevail.

  • Allen Halstead

    Craig, Why don’t we (AOPA) organize a letter writing campaign to our Congressmen & Senators about this issue? Maybe if we could get a few of them to write letters to the FAA about this money saving issue, it could move the FAA off dead center. ??

  • http://bravogolfaviation.com Bob Gould

    What to do? Get Senator Jim Inhoffe involved again as he was able to get the Pilot’s Bill of Rights through Congress in record time! I agree with Allen Halstead that AOPA and EAA should organize a very strong letter writing campaign to all Congressmen and Senators about this issue! It is a government and pilot money saving issue and the facts seem to support themselves in terms of safety. It is often the case with the FAA that any controversial decision results in nothing but a “no action” conclusion.
    I am directly affected by this decision.
    I have a choice to make. I could continue to pursue flying within the LSA category but I do not have the requisite $100k to join. I could wait and hope the FAA changes the medical rules, at which time I could purchase my little C-150 or Cherokee 140 and do my local fun flying, or I quit flying after 47 years (licensed flying – I was almost born in an airplane 62 years ago). Right now the “quit flying” is winning the argument!
    So, AOPA and EAA – get off your duff and start using more clout from my membership dues!

  • Ray Toews

    Start with the basics.
    If FAA is unwilling to make a decision based on fear of reprisal from the legal system, make the legal system responsible.
    In Canada if you launch a suite and lose, the loser pays all legal fees.
    Makes the lawyers much more reluctant to sue.

  • Rich Bond

    Allan Halstead’s idea of a letter writing campaign does not even need AOPA’s or EAA’s organization to make it happen. We are all represented by one representative and two senators. Write the letters today. I am.

  • http://527t george schneider

    FAA has no real good reason to grant the 3rd Class Med Exemption Unless they are ” urged ” to do so. by someone , something other than their subjects… We need the letterwriting campaign to congress desperately.. All this preaching to the choir is worn out …Lets get going with it NOW ! AOPA and EAA both need to step up.. It has been long enough …

  • Jay

    Why? The answer is simple. The government’s intent is to eliminate all forms of aviation which cannot be heavily regulated or taxed; leaving only commercial aviation. They cannot overtly eliminate GA, but they can make flying so costly and onerous that GA dwindles to nothing.

    What to do about it? The answer is simple:
    Similar to the congressional action that was taken to avert the loss of air traffic
    controllers at airports during the Sequester, and similar to the FAA Part 23 Reorganization
    for small aircraft certification, AOPA and EAA should just have Congress pass a law that
    REQUIRES the FAA to implement the Medical Exemption with a deadline for implementation. Given
    that the FAA doesn’t think it is a priority, we in the aviation community should have our
    elected officials just pass a law and make it happen now. Recall that the air traffic controllers
    were back on the job within a week of congressional action. There is no need to wait months
    or years. It can be done by the end of next week if there is the political will to do so.
    Please make it so!

  • Henry Brecher

    I had intended to respond to Craig Fuller’s editorial in the July issue of AOPA Pilot because the same attitude and conditions that prevail in the inaction on the “driver’s license medical” issue are also to be found in the way the FAA handles Special Issuance medical certificates, namely by taking unconscionably long to process the application materials that are submitted to them. “Non-response” time for each exchange with Oklahoma City routinely takes three months and often more than one exchange is forced on one by the FAA. The result is a forced months-long delay in authorization to fly.

  • Jim

    In addition to contacting our Congressmen, another possible strategy would be to inundate the FAA honchos with a flood of faxes and emails demanding that they get off their bureaucratic asses and do the ‘simple and logical’ thing of approving the 3rd Class Medical exemption. 16,000 faxes and emails should help make this a ‘priority’ for the FAA.

  • http://Z22 Steven Drake

    When was the last time the government… Any government entity….. Given up any power. Remember power corrupts. and absolute power corrupts absolutely. By the time this finally passes I’ll be to old to fly.

  • Gary P

    Two recent developments lead me to believe the FAA is heading in the direction we would like them to go: the “Conditions AME”s Can Issue”, or CACI policy, where several conditions which would require a special issuance in the past now allow AME”s to issue a medical certificate based on their own evaluation without any review from the FAA, and the awareness and education program the FAA has initiated concerning prescription and over the counter medication use and effects as they impact flying. I believe we are close to getting the exemption approved, but not until the FAA rejects it again, citing “more data needed”. I believe this will be necessary for the FAA to satisfy critics who are concerned about safety. I think the best thing the AOPA can do is push for an immediate decision, sooner rather than later, even if the exemption is rejected, and begin the process of data gathering and getting many more pilots to submit comments in support of the exemption. I was one of the 16,000 who posted a comment, and I am sorry to say with almost 400,000 members, the membership did not come out in force. I believe the exemption will get approved eventually, but all voices need to be heard from.

  • Jules Delaune

    Please, if AOPA and/or EAA would facilitate a Congressional letter campaign, and the 16,000 who signed the petition participated, road to approval would become much shorter.

  • Rod

    We must get congress involved! That is the only way this will get done. I agree with the letter writing campaign.

  • Doc

    I suspect the FAA bureaucrats will fight giving up the power and control that they have with the 3rd class physical even if Congress cuts their budget further, unless the budget cut is seriously deep. Power and Control are what drives most of the bureaucracies in governments .

  • TBD

    All of the comments are naive. Congress doesn’t listen to people (voters) with no money. The very fact that you are emphasizing a cost savings will doom this effort. The only thing Congress cares about is getting re-elected. Since everyone just keeps re-electing their incumbents the only thing Congressmen care about is keeping the rich and powerful happy. They need them so that they don’t use their resources to get somebody else elected which is about the only time an incumbent loses re-election. Also, they need them to fund their campaigns so that they can use that money to help themselves and any incumbent crony who might be in trouble stay in power. Aircraft manufacturers (money) don’t want this initiative to pass because they will sell fewer airplanes, especially the LSA guys who have priced their little 2 seater, essentially productionized home built expermental aircraft, at $100-$200 thousand. Why do these cost so much? Everyone wants to blame regulations and lawyers. I’m not buying it. They can price them that high because there are no alternatives. Simple Econ 101, supply and demand. So good luck with your letter writing campaign!

  • Don Singer

    I’d like to add a couple of things. to the good comments above. If you have access to “Aviation Consumer,” check out Rick Durden’s excellent editorial, “Start Holding Up Your end, FAA,” in the May 2013 issue. It addressed the inappropriate difficulty of obtaining approval of an STC, but if with the change of a few words, it could easily have been written about the medical certification process. I wish that editorial could be shared with the entire aviation community. Part of the problem in both cases is the culture and perceived mission within the FAA. Part is resistance by an entrenched bureaucracy to change. Within FAA, who do you suppose has the responsibility for reviewing the AOPA/EAA petition? Almost certainly it’s the Aeronmedical Branch, which has an obvious conflict of interest and an incentive to resist any change that may decrease its power or threaten the jobs of its members. I’m sure most of them are good people who deeply believe that they perform an essential safety function. However, the facts say otherwise.

    @Jim Stark: In many ways, I’m not a fan of “this administration,” but it’s not fair to bash them on this point. The same thing would happen with any recent or future administration.

    @Ray Toews: I’m no lawyer, but Rick Durden is, and in his editorial, he addresses the issue of litigation, saying, “FAA employees can’t be held personally liable for a certification decision.”