Congress passes Pilot’s Bill of Rights

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.

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.

  • Veronica

    Fascinating. Thanks for the update!

  • N18026

    Id like to thank all of the people and Organizations AOPA, EAA and Inholf ,Graves and others that went to bat for the Benefit of Pilots from coast to coast. it may be the only gift ever offered to the public from the US Congress in the history of walking humans.
    again Thanks.

  • TedK

    Les thinks a certain degree of truthfulness is required? What the heck is a degree of truthfulness?!? Truthfulness and forthrightness are required…and should be assumed. And those who prove they have no integrity should be hammered. But the great majority have integrity and should be treated appropriately until otherwise proved.

    • I think this is a really insightful observation. The attitude of the FAA has always been “prove you’re fit to fly.”

      Pilots’ attitude is: “Prove I’m not.”

      • TedK

        I have a little bit of sympathy for the Aviation Medical Examiners. When you have been doing Class 1 flight physicals for airline pilots all day long, it is hard to mentally relax your standards for Joe Bugsmasher.

        I am all for the new “Family Doc Medical” but I don’t think you should divorce yourself from your AME. I think this changes the dynamic of the relationship. Under the new Law, I hope that recreational pilots retool their relationship with their AME, and when the medical situation moves beyond routine, that the recreational pilot consults with his (or her) AME

        When I was in the military, my Flight Doc worked to keep me flying. We need to develop that sort of relationship with our AMEs.

        • As long as people remember that when you consult with the AME, you’re not consulting with YOUR doctor. You’re consulting with the FAA.

          • TedK

            I wonder. If your aren’t coming in to get a Flight Physical, can you go see Doctor Aviation, MD, …NOT Doctor Aviation, AME. There are lots of AMEs (Bruce Chien leaps to mind) that help aviators rather than act as the Sword of the FAA. IF we recreational aviators really want this to work, we and the AMEs need to change the relationship.

          • Chen and his kin — including Warren Silberman — are Exhibit A for why the system needed to be blown up. He’s got a great business helping pilots navigate a medical certification system that makes no sense to mere mortals.

            Silberman was the head of the FAA Aeromedical Division. Retires. Gets a job with AOPA helping with their business of helping pilots navigate the medical certification system…. that he helped create.

            It’s insane.

          • TedK

            I have only seen the positive side of Chien.

            However, it does seem odd to pay a guide to lead you thru the minefield the guide planted.

  • Mike

    You know… I know many pilots who are not truthful when it comes to filling out the application for the FAA medical. The process of going to the AME for a third class medical every 2 years often takes little more than fogging a mirror and shelling out $125.00. Les is out of touch with general aviation. Wonder when the last time he was out at a small uncontrolled general aviation airport… if ever.

    • Mike

      I also want to say that going to the AME is not going to insure safety for the pilot. The sport pilot self certification program has proven to be successful and there is no reason whatsoever that this cannot be applied to the third class medical successfully. People know when they are fit to fly. I have heard many times from airline pilots that the old notion of concern for safety about all those passengers in the back is at the front of there minds… they are worried about their own behinds first and foremost and they are the first ones that want to get ti the destination safely.

      • I never had any interest — at all — in flying when I’ve had a Meniere’s attack. The current model assumes I would like to get in a plane and fly when the room is spinning and I’m vomiting.

  • Dan

    Sorry this is a bit off-topic
    My in-laws had a layover in MSP last night and missed the connection, they called while unsure if they’d be able to catch another flight… I think they were coming in from Duluth

    The said the delay was caused by their pilot opening the airplane door and exiting before the jetway was there, falling onto the concrete.

    I have not seen anything on the news about this, but I have to think this is an unusual occurrence? They usually seem pretty serious about their protocols involving that door — I texted my BIL again today and he swears this is exactly what happened, and he’s not really the prank/hoax-making type.

    Seemed to me it would be a story… or maybe this just happens sometimes?

    • Weird, because I don’t believe pilots aren’t the ones who open the door.

      • Dan

        Yeah I thought it was the jetway operator guy… and maybe it was

        • Or a flight attendant.

          • Dan

            Oh right. From the inside 🙂
            I mean I thought they like knocked on the outside. Anyway, weird