Posts Tagged ‘FAA’

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

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.

Time for a Shakeup

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Last November the Federal Air Surgeon, Fred Tilton, unilaterally declared that mandatory screening for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in pilots would begin “shortly.”

The initial BMI threshold would be 40, with an ominous vow that “once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA.”

Tilton noted that “up to 30% of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA”. Between the fact that people with normal-range BMIs have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and his apparent zest for uncovering “every” airman with OSA, logic dictates that the eventual threshold would be in the mid-20s, if not lower.

The aviation community was up in arms pretty quickly, and for good reason. For one thing, the mid-20s are the upper end of the normal BMI range. It’s also worth noting that even the World Health Organization acknowledges that the BMI scale was never designed for application to individual people, but rather for statistical modeling of entire populations. BMI is based solely on weight and height, so it does not account for differing body types. Nor does it obey the law of scaling, which dictates that mass increases to the 3rd power of height.

In plain English, a bigger person will always have a higher BMI even if they are not any fatter. This penalizes tall individuals, as well as bodybuilders and athletes who are in prime physical shape by assigning them absurdly high BMI numbers. Likewise, short people are misled into thinking that they are thinner than they are.

Nevertheless, Tilton declared his intention to press on anyway, without any industry input or following established rulemaking procedures despite the fact that this scavenger hunt would break invasive new ground in aeromedical certification.

Then, even the Aviation Medical Examiners objected to the new policy, noting that “no scientific body of evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA has compromised aviation safety” and that providing long term prognoses is not part of the FAA’s job. The medical certification exists soley to “determine the likelihood of pilot incapacitation for the duration of the medical certificate.”

Without the support of the civil aviation medicine community, Tilton was literally standing alone. At that point, Congress jumped into the fray on the pilot community’s behalf and eventually forced the Air Surgeon to back down… for now.

While the battle may have been won, the war is far from over. Mark my words, this is not the last you’ll hear about this bogeyman. Tilton may be forced to consult with the aviation community or follow a rulemaking procedure of some sort, but his zeal for the topic means OSA screening will be back in one form or another.

To effectively combat such overreach, we’ve got to attack the problem from its true source. In this case, the Air Surgeon’s ammunition came from National Transportation Safety Board recommendations issued in the wake of a 2008 regional airline flight which overflew its destination by 26 miles when both pilots fell asleep.

… the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration:

Modify the Application for Airman Medical Certificate to elicit specific information about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea and about the presence of specific risk factors for that disorder. (A-09-61)

Implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea and require that those pilots provide evidence through the medical certification process of having been appropriately evaluated and, if treatment is needed, effectively treated for that disorder before being granted unrestricted medical certification. (A-09-62)

The NTSB serves a useful purpose in assisting transportation disaster victims and investigating accidents, but when it comes to safety recommendations, the agency operates in a kind of vacuum, divorced from some of the most pressing realities of the modern general aviation world. The reason is simple: their mission statement. It calls for the Board to “independently advance transportation safety” by “determining the probable cause of the accidents and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.”

While there’s nothing objectionable about their mission, note how there’s no mention of the cost these recommendations impose on those of us trying to make a go of it in the flying industry. Since it’s not part of their mission statement, it is not a factor the Board takes into account. It doesn’t even appear on their radar. The Board’s federal funding and their lack of rulemaking authority negates any such considerations. So a sleep apnea study costs thousands of dollars — so what? If it prevents one pilot from falling asleep in the cockpit in next half century, it’s well worth the decimation to an already down-and-out sector of the economy.

That’s been the logic for the NTSB since it was conceived by the Air Commerce Act in 1926. It worked well when aerospace safety was at its nadir — but that was nearly ninety years ago. As air transportation evolved during the 20th century, attempts at increasing safety have reached the point of diminishing returns and exponentially increasing cost. At some point the incessant press toward a perfect safety record will make aviating such a sclerotic activity that it will, in effect, cease.

It’s a problem for any industry, and it’s especially so for one that’s teetering on the edge of oblivion the way ours is. The good news is that this can be fixed. It’s time to shake things up at the NTSB by revising their mission statement to make cost analysis a major part of the Board’s function. They should work with stakeholders to carefully study the long-term effect each recommendation would have on the health and size of the aviation industry before they make it.

For what it’s worth, the FAA needs this mission statement adjustment just as much as the NTSB. More, in fact, because the NTSB can recommend anything it wishes, but the regulatory power to act upon those suggestions is outside their purview and rests with the Federal Aviation Administration. From medical approval to burdensome aircraft certification rules, the FAA is the hammer. We have to start somewhere, though, and the NTSB is in many ways the top of the heap, the place where these ideas get their start. It would be nice to see the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C. suggest such a bill to members of Congress.

One final thought: if government’s power really does derive from the “consent of the governed”, this should be an idea even the NTSB (and FAA) can get behind. Otherwise, they may convene one day and find that there’s not much of an industry left for them to prescribe things to.

A Future with More Government Shutdowns?

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Government Shutdown FAAAs of this writing, the 2013 government shutdown, the first in 17 years, has been in effect for a week with no signs of ending. If it only continues for another week or two and doesn’t reoccur in the near future, the many people and organizations affected by it will give a collective sigh of relief and it will soon be forgotten. But what if government shutdowns become the new normal?

It wasn’t that long ago that filibusters in the Senate were rare, but since 2009 they’ve become routine, requiring 60 votes whereas in the past a simple majority vote was sufficient.  If government shutdowns become routine, we may be in uncharted territory.

From the important to the mundane, here’s what’s not happening at the FAA during the government shutdown:

  • The Aircraft Registry Branch is closed, so new aircraft sales have halted since the planes can’t be registered. A GAMA survey indicates that 12 deliveries were missed in the first two days and a total of 135 deliveries totaling $1.38 billion if the shutdown lasts a couple of weeks. Interestingly, the Aircraft Registry Branch was deemed essential and left open during the shutdowns in the 1990s. Why not this time?
  • The Flight Standards Service is down from 5,000 people to fewer than 200 essential people, mostly managers. So the inspectors who provide safety oversight of maintenance and operations are mostly sidelined. Expect virtually no ramp checks, ferry permits, CFI renewals, or approval of applications, such as a new Part 135 certificate for a new charter operator. “Limited” certification work, such as on new aircraft under development, will continue according to the DOT.
  • Written exams for knowledge tests have halted, an inconvenience for anyone who put off taking their written exam until just before a now delayed checkride.
  • Major new initiatives are delayed. Remember Part 23 reform that according to AOPA will “overhaul small-aircraft certification rules to double safety and cut costs in half.” Not happening right now. Development and testing of NextGen technologies is also halted. And if you’ve taken a written exam and wondered why you saw lots of questions about ADF receivers, but few on GPS, be aware that the current overhaul of knowledge tests has stopped.

Some things that are essential to protect life and property continue to be in place. That includes air traffic control facilities, the FSS services provided by Lockheed Martin and the aviationweather.gov web site (which is actually part of NOAA, not the FAA). And DOT reports that 2,490 employees from the Office of Aviation Safety will be incrementally recalled over a two-week period. FAA practical tests (checkrides)  continue for now, except for those that require a ride with an FAA inspector, such as CFI checkrides in some FSDOs.

The 2013 FAA budget involved reductions of $486 million and the Fiscal Year 2014 target includes a reduction of $697 million. A future FAA with a shrinking budget is likely to take longer to implement new rules, to reduce the services it currently provides, and to outsource more of its functions. I expect it to also attempt to charge for previously free services (e.g. the $447,000 bill for ATC service at AirVenture).

So what are the near-term implications for General Aviation? For starters, people working in GA will need to start planning further ahead to minimize the impact of future government shutdowns. Some things will be easy, like encouraging flight students to take their written exams when they first start flight training. Others, like getting a new Part 135 charter certificate approved when the FAA is open will be difficult because of backlogs.

Looking further down the road, GA should be involved in the dialog on how to restructure a changing FAA. If you have a good idea on how they can cut waste and improve efficiency, send it to the Administrator. Do you have an idea on how they could outsource a service, like the Flight Service Stations (FSS) that were outsourced through Lockheed Martin? Send them a note or a proposal.

The worst possible outcome would be if other, better-funded agencies step in to help the FAA with their mission. I can only imagine how awful GA flying would become if, for example, the TSA took primary responsibility for ramp checks. If government shutdowns ever become the new normal, many things will change. And it will be up to all of us to make sure that GA as we know it doesn’t get swept under the carpet in the process.