As pilots, we are unusually cognizant of regulations. From the beginning of our adventure into becoming a pilot and now in our everyday flying we are exposed to a plethora of FAA regulations that we must comply with. The truth be known, every facet of our life is fraught with regulations. Business publications consistently bemoan a burgeoning number of regulations coming from our Federal government. But the Feds aren’t alone in their zeal to regulate. A part of my job as AOPA’s Southern Region Manager is to monitor not only State and Local legislative matters but also the regulatory environment closer to our member’s home.

Last year, a Middle Tennessee Part 141 Flight School received notification from the state’s Higher Education Commission that they were required to “register” with the agencies Postsecondary Schools Division. It happened that the agency was also the designated State Approving Agency for the Veterans Administration and this flight school sought VA Approval. After learning that the state agency would be requiring an extraordinary application process, burdensome administrative responsibility and very high fees, the flight school decided to challenge the state’s authority to further regulate what the FAA was already regulating. After all, only the FAA can issue a pilot’s license.  Sounded like a no-brainer!

But wait… before taking the matter to court, it was decided to request an opinion from Tennessee’s Attorney General regarding the state’s authority to regulate a Postsecondary flight training school. When the opinion came down, the AG said yes, Tennessee law was clear – the agency did, in fact, have the necessary authority. So, the flight school felt that it was forced to go about satisfying the application process and paying the fees – a whopping $10,000!

Given the Tennessee AG’s opinion, it was now clear that we would need to put together a new strategy – one that did not challenge the state’s authority to do what they were doing. We began to craft an entirely new approach.

Attempts to negotiate with the agency and to provide some insight into the incompatibility of their regs with those of the FAA, and to try and facilitate some sort of stakeholder input were met by deaf ears. Simply put – the bureaucracy appeared to be “dug in”!

After months of research and investigation, we put together a letter to the Governor outlining our argument that the state’s regulations were completely unnecessary and incompatable with FAA regulations; that the FAA regulations and authority are dominant, regardless of what the state required and that these (new) regulations are a disincentive for aviation training businesses to operate in Tennessee. The Governor’s office graciously responded to our concerns and set up a meeting with the Higher Education Commission where we again reiterated our concerns.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the General Counsel for the Higher Education Commission agreed that state oversight in this case was indeed unnecessary and the agency joined with us to write and file the necessary legislation to change the law in Tennessee. The agency’s Counsel even went the extra mile as we, together, followed the measure through the customary legislative committees and votes in both the House and Senate. The Bill is on the Governor’s desk. Aviation training in Tennessee, regulated by the FAA, will be exempt from state oversight.

AOPA provides us with marvelous tools to help monitor state legislative activity and with the help of vigilant members and our dedicate corps of Airport Support Network Volunteers; we have a good handle on local legislation (ordinances, etc.). But keeping an eye on the “regulatory” environment can be a real challenge. It is, oftentimes, much more surreptitious. In the case I have just outlined, there was apparently no formal rule-making process that included any stakeholder input at all so the agency didn’t feel obligated to do any sort of outreach. Then, of course, there is the problem of what I will call an “overzealous bureaucracy” – I think I will spare you my feelings about that!

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  • Steve Thaxton

    Bob, you and the AOPA are the best. Thanks! Steve