Congress passes Pilot’s Bill of Rights

Sunset at South St. Paul's Fleming Field. Photo: Bob Collins/MPR News.

Over the last few years, I’ve occasionally described why pilots don’t seek treatment for various medical conditions, primarily fear that they’ll lose the medical certification required to fly general aviation aircraft.

This week, Congress solved that problem, passing legislation that included a provision — called the Pilot’s Bill of Rights — hailed by the largest lobbying organization for pilots as the most significant legislation victory for general aviation in decades. It’s in a temporary reauthorization bill for the FAA that’s on its way to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Under the current system, general aviation pilots 40 and over need to be examined by an FAA doctor every two years (this would be in addition to any physical exams by the pilot’s own physician). And the list of disqualifying conditions is a long one.

As I’ve described before, I’ve got one — Meniere’s Disease, which disqualifies me from flying unless I jump through various and expensive hoops to get an annual “special issuance,” a system which allowed me to donate almost $1,000 to the Mayo Clinic a couple of years ago to satisfy the paperwork requirements to get one.

An FAA form that asks pilots about medical conditions. Pilots often withhold information for fear they'll lose their right to fly.

Just about every pilot of a certain age has something that might disqualify them at some point, which is one reason why more than a few experts believe general aviation in the U.S. is dying.

A lot of pilots don’t bother; they just stop flying, a reality that has crushed the general aviation industry.

Under the new legislation, most pilots who’ve held an FAA medical certificate within 10 years of the law being signed won’t need to visit the FAA doctor anymore, unless they fly with five or more passengers. New pilots will only need an FAA exam once. A pilot will still need to be examined by a state-licensed doctor once every four years.

“These reforms put decisions about medical care back into the hands of pilots and their personal physicians, people who know them well and have an ongoing interest in their health and well-being,” Mark Baker, the Minnesota native who heads the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said in a news release.

Pilots will need a driver’s license, apparently under the theory that if you’re healthy enough to drive a car, you’re healthy enough to fly an airplane.

Les Abend, an airline pilot and columnist for Flying Magazine, isn’t all that thrilled with the notion.

“I am well aware that, to some degree, truthfulness has always been required,” he recently wrote of the current system. “Certainly under current law the potential still exits in failing to disclose prescriptions, medical professional visits and so on. But under the proposed legislation, 10 years is a long time, especially for those of us having reached the age when health issues become a typical part of our lives. And never having to be examined by an AME, ever? Hmm … it doesn’t leave me feeling warm and fuzzy.”

Abend says flying is expensive as it is, and spending money “maintaining and monitoring our health seems like a small price to pay.”

Once President Obama signs the legislation, the FAA will have a year to implement the new rules.

The FAA reauthorization bill also dealt a setback to Republicans in the House, who had hoped to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system.