The Journey of a Thousand Miles

March 19th, 2014 by Ron Rapp

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.

Ron Rapp

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 7,000-plus hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Brent Owens

    Ron,
    Great article! You said it perfectly and hopefully it all comes to fruition.

    Brent

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      Thanks for your support Brent! How great would it be if you could fly your RV8 without needing a Third Class medical certificate?

  • http://www.flyaoamedia.com Chris Palmer

    Totally agreed as well. This is a ‘no-brainer’ and should be passed soon. If we can’t count on the FAA to do something like this, then there’s no possible way they will be forward thinking in an industry that is changing just as fast as the tech industry these days.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      Exactly. The fact that the FAA wasn’t able to do this on their own indicates that changes in the agency are required if our industry is to regain the nimble footing necessary for success in the 21st century. Look where all the growth and innovation is: the Experimental world. There’s a reason for that.

  • TedK

    Another great indicator is that Congress passed and the President signed the Small Aircraft Revitalization Act requiring the FAA to implement the changes recommended by the Part 23 ARC. Notably, SARA was passed by the House Unanimously. When was the last time you saw that happen?
    Among the SARA recommendations would allow GA owners to modify their airplanes in the same easy way Experimental and LSA owners can. See the SARA recommendations at http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/committees/documents/media/Part.23.Reorganization.ARC.FINAL.Report.pdf

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I hope you’re right, Ted. Unfortunately, the Part 23 re-write has been a long, slow slog, and the ARC final report you referenced even admits that “As the new Part 23 is introduced, the conservatism currently found in the system could very well increase, negating the hoped-for increases in efficiency”.

      • Duane

        Ron – It’s always safe, of course, to be pessimistic when it comes to the FAA, but at least now the law demands a specific date next year for FAA to deliver its draft rewrite of Part 23. And the early indications are that FAA’s working group plans to institute an ASTM standards based approach to certification, rather than product by product approvals by the FAA. That should help a great deal.

        But I think we’d like to see the FAA go even further (but probably not without additional specific Congressional legislation) and just flat-out exempt all aircraft and systems used for personal transportation from FAA certification, period. Get the government out of the certification business altogether for personal avation.
        If we eliminate the whole TSO certification and field mod approach for non-commercial aircraft, reasonable assurance of safety is provided as long as certified AIs sign off on any mods and the products involved meet ASTM standards. AI authorization is the real protection against most potentially unsafe mods anyway, as that puts a professional on the line and liable for any “bad” mods (that’s the essential difference with the experimental aircraft process).

        This is more or less the same approach we’ve used for decades in the engineering and construction industries – it works great and delivers safe products at reasonable cost.

        AI signoffs and ASTM standards will provide nearly 100% of the risk reduction benefit purportedly conferred by FAA certification … minus the cost and delays and mindless numb-skullery of FAA bureaucrats.

        • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

          Good thoughts! Getting the government out of the certification business for personal aviation is exactly what I had in mind as well.

          I’m wonder, however, if requiring IA approval would achieve that goal (although it would be better than what we have now!) without liability reform, because from my experience, most mechanics are very hesitant to sign-off on anything not 100% approved, certified, and documented by the FAA because of the way plaintiffs sue everyone who’s ever touched the airplane or any of its components regardless of how unrelated to the cause of an accident they might be.

          The E-AB world functions without such limitations, and we don’t see those airplanes falling out of the sky. The only thing falling in that world seems to be prices.

          My other argument for expanding E-AB procedures and processes into the rest of non-commercial GA is that it’s far easier to add new restrictions than it is to remove old ones, so why not use the momentum, data, and political support we’ve got now to achieve those ends. If it doesn’t work out, I’m sure there will be no end to the federal agencies and special interest groups ready to jump on the regulatory bandwagon.

          • Duane

            Not sure that converting all legacy certified aircraft used for personal aviation to the equivalent of experimental category would necessarily be a net positive, since insurers would likely have to boost liability rates to equal current rates for experimental aircraft, which are substantial higher than for equivalent certified aircraft. Also, a lot of owners and their passengers would not like to lose the reassurance provided by flying a “certified” aircraft as compared to an experimental. Therefore I still think it’s useful to separate “certified” personal aviation aircraft and mods from “experimental” aircraft.

            In any event, AIs have to sign off for any fleld mods now for certified aircraft, so there would be no increase in liability exposure to AIs resulting from their sign-off and verification that the modification meets ASTM standards … all we’d be doing under this proposal is eliminating FAA field mod approval (which adds virtually no safety but adds a great deal of delay and cost to the owner).

            Let’s see what FAA comes up with next year … I’m expecting it will be a step in the right direction, but won’t go far enough. And then Congress will step in again and get more specific in its direction to FAA to simplify personal aviation.

  • Rationalista2

    “eliminate formal medical certification for many aviators”….

    Is the aviation community so desperate to elevate and expand it’s perception in the eyes of the public that they would allow anyone who is so called “medically fit” to drive a car be able to fly an airplane up to 250 kts, with 5 other souls up to just under 14,000 feet ?

    “No child left behind – everybody’s a winner” theology. All it’s going to do is increase the NTSB database…

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      The data gathered from a decade of LSA operation and many decades of glider flying do not support your theory. They have been operating without formal medical certification for a long time and have not been “increasing the NTSB database” at a higher rate than segments of general aviation which are currently required to hold a Third Class medical.

      What the aviation community is desperate to do is eliminate needless cost, restriction, and hassle in order to keep the industry alive.

  • Kevin

    I am a student pilot going for a sport pilot certificate (although I am not flight training now due to time and money constraints). Hopefully, one day, once I get my sport pilot certificate I could go for the private pilot certificate with a drivers license medical if this thing passes.

    I support GAPPA because not only it would bring back pilots who stopped flying due to cumbersome FAA 3rd class medical requirements, it would also attract people who always wanted to fly but don’t want to go through the FAA 3rd class medical. We have nearly 14,000 people sending just over 35,000 letters and emails to Congress! Do you think each senator and representative each got thousands of letters and emails supporting GAPPA? Do you think we could really make a difference this time in expanding the drivers license medical requirements since I believe that we have Congress’s attention?