As long-time readers know, we’ve been following developments on industry attempts to deregulate the FAA’s airman medical certification process. Happily, on December 15, 2015, the full U.S. Senate passed its version of the underlying measure, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 (PBOR2), by unanimous voice vote. The bill, S. 571, now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, where its immediate future is uncertain at this writing.
The Senate’s vote to pass PBOR2 comes on the heels of literally years of work by industry organizations, individuals and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the bill’s sponsor, to deregulate, or reform if you prefer, circumstances under which an FAA medical certificate is required for pilots commanding personal aircraft. The PBOR2 legislation builds on more than 10 years of experience with the FAA’s sport pilot certification, which merely requires a state-issued drivers license as proof of fitness to fly. The Senate-passed version may actually require pilots to spend more time with their personal physician, reviewing their fitness to fly than before. The sidebar on the opposite page summarizes the bill’s provisions.
In addition to a score of senators and their staff, the two organizations most responsible for PBOR2’s success so far are AOPA and EAA. Both had predictable reactions to Senate passage.
“This is an enormous step toward getting long-awaited third class medical reforms, and we’re excited that the Senate has moved so decisively to get this done,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. The EAA’s Chairman/CEO Jack J. Pelton echoed Baker’s comments. “Working a bill through Congress is incredibly difficult and painstaking work, so we’ll take a moment to congratulate all involved in this major step forward for aeromedical reform, although we know the Senate’s approval guarantees us only more hard work ahead,” Pelton said.
The Fine Print
One possible misconception about the bill’s requirements is that a pilot would never have to see a physician to consider his or her fitness to fly. As the bill’s description states, that’s not really the case. According to that description, a “pilot would also be required to have a comprehensive medical examination every four years. The examination must include…a checklist of medical items and conditions, as specified in the bill, similar to one currently used by AMEs.” The FAA would develop this checklist.
Also according to the description, pilots “would be required to provide a comprehensive medical history and a list of drugs (prescription and non-prescription) he or she takes, which the physician would be required to review with the pilot during the examination. The physician performing the examination must also follow the checklist….” The pilot’s physician would be required to certify that all items on the checklist were discussed during the exam, including any drugs the pilot is taking, and that the examination included all items on that checklist.
Ideally, the U.S. House of Representatives would quickly vote to approve the Senate-passed version of S. 571 and send the bill to the President for enactment. Given that 2016 is an election year, one during which the FAA’s programs are up for a multiyear authorization, action by the House is not assured.
In our view, the primary obstacle to a House vote on PBOR2 is a seemingly unrelated proposal to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system, probably leading to alternate revenue streams in the form of user fees. It’s entirely reasonable for legislators to demand support of ATC privatization proposal before PBOR2 to come before the full House. It’s called politics.
At this writing, the existing authorization for the FAA and its programs extends through March 31. By then, either a full, multiyear bill or a temporary extension must be enacted or the agency would be forced to close its doors for all but its essential operations, as happened in 2012. While it normally would be a natural thing for PBOR2 to be made a part of the FAA reauthorization legislation, the general aviation industry’s opposition to ATC privatization makes such an outcome something that’s not likely to happen.
The bottom line in all this that PBOR2 is advancing, but it’s not the blanket “I’ll never need a medical certificate again” type of bill some may think. Pilots would still need regular physician visits to consider their fitness to fly, and perhaps even more paperwork.
PBOR2’s Medical Certificate Provisions
The bill allows an exemption to the FAA’s current third-class medical certificate requirements under the following circumstances:
1. The flight must be operated at 18,000 feet (msl) or below, and at no more than 250 KIAS. Both VFR and IFR would be allowed.
2. The aircraft operated must not be capable of carrying more than six occupants, must not have a maximum gross takeoff weight greater than 6000 pounds. No more than five passengers, plus the pilot, are allowed.
3. The pilot must possess a valid state driver’s license, and comply with applicable medical requirements associated with it, in addition to regular physician visits detailed in the bill.
4. The pilot may not operate a flight under the exemption for compensation or hire.
To be eligible for the exemption:
1. A pilot would be required to have held an FAA medical certificate in the 10 years before the bill’s enactment or at some point thereafter.
2. The pilot must complete an online airman medical education course every two years. The course must be available on the Internet free of charge; be developed and updated in coordination with GA stakeholder groups; educate pilots on conducting medical self-assessments; advise pilots on how to identify warning signs of potential serious medical conditions; outline medical risk mitigation strategies; increase awareness of potentially impairing medications; encourages regular medical exams and physician consultations; and inform pilots of the prohibitions on flying during a medical deficiency.
A pilot would not be eligible for this exemption if the FAA denied the pilot’s most recent completed application for an airman medical certificate. At the conclusion of the online course, a series of forms would be generated for the pilot to complete and submit to the FAA, including a specified medical examination checklist.
A pilot also would be required to have a comprehensive medical examination every four years, including a review of current medications. The examination must include a specified checklist of medical items and conditions similar to one currently used by AMEs. Pilots would be required to retain related certificates and forms demonstrating an understanding of applicable medical requirements and compliance with the new requirements.
Pilots would be required to certify they understand they may not fly during a period of medical deficiency. If diagnosed with any medical condition impacting ability to fly, an individual would be required to be under the care and treatment of a physician in order to fly.
Individuals diagnosed with specified mental health and neurological disorders would be required to have or obtain special issuance of a medical certificate, as currently is the case. Individuals diagnosed with certain cardiovascular conditions also would be required to obtain a one-time special issuance. An appropriate clinical evaluation must be satisfactory but no FAA-imposed mandatory wait period would apply. No other special issuances would be required.
The FAA would have 180 days after enactment to implement the exemption, after which no enforcement action would be allowed against a pilot who met the requirements for the exemption and conducted an allowed operation without a medical certificate.