When U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) last October landed his Cessna 340 on a closed runway at Texas’ Cameron County Airport he both scattered construction workers and made national news. Many observers worried the high-profile event would cause a backlash against general aviation.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen—Inhofe himself took the brunt of any criticism and few expected anything worthwhile from it.
But something good may this way come.
While it’s still early, something good—in the form of legislation crafted to establish a Pilot’s Bill of Rights (PBOR)—may be one long-term result.
Inhofe introduced just such a bill in early July and is scheduled to be at AirVenture Saturday at 1 p.m. in Forum Pavilion 11 BRP/Rotax to discuss it. The bill, also known as S. 1335, has four principal features and 27 co-sponsors among the 100 senators. In the U.S. House of Representatives, similar legislation is planned.
Foremost among the bill’s provisions is one designed to make FAA enforcement proceedings—which generally are conducted under the Federal Administrative Procedures Act—less one-sided.
Presently and according to Sen. Inhofe, airmen may have little access to the evidence against them, especially when considering an emergency certificate action. And if the airman chooses to appeal an FAA action, it’s an administrative law judge (ALJ) employed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and often inclined to defer to the FAA who presides.
The PBOR seeks to modify how this process works in two ways.
First, the FAA would be required to notify the airman, in writing, that he or she is the subject of an enforcement action. That’s called a letter of investigation, and under the bill must include a description of the investigation, information stating a response is not required. In that vein, the bill also stipulates there should be no inference against the individual for declining to respond to such a letter, but noting that any response may be used against the airman.
Perhaps most important, the releasable portions of the FAA’s investigative report will be available to the individual.
Second, access to ATC data is another area the PBOR seeks to improve.
The bill would mandate that the airman be provided any and all relevant data concerning the flight in question and then give the individual at least 30 days before the agency could proceed with its case.
Last but not least, in considering FAA enforcement actions is the concept of deference.
Currently, many observers believe the NTSB ALJs defer to the FAA when considering an appeal.
The PBOR would address that concept by making it clear an ALJ is not bound by the FAA’s factual findings and may consider appropriate guidance and interpretations.
The bill also would allow the airman to choose a U.S. district court as the venue for an appeal, rather than the NTSB.
Of course, Sen. Inhofe blamed his landing on the closed runway, in part, on the mostly broken system the FAA uses to maintain and distribute notices to airmen, or NOTAMs.
Inhofe’s PBOR would address the current situation by mandating a NOTAM Improvement Program, which would archive NOTAM information for public access and “apply filters so that pilots can prioritize critical flight safety information” and distinguish it from other data.
The bill also would establish a series of five goals for the NOTAM program, including decreasing “the overwhelming volume of NOTAMs an airman receives …prior to a flight;” ensuring NOTAMs are more “specific and relevant to the airman's route” and formatted for usability; providing a full set of NOTAM results and specific information requested by airmen; create a briefing document “that is easily searchable;” and filter the results in a fashion similar to one performed by the Department of Defense NOTAM system.
Another area of focus under the PBOR is the medical certification process, which the FAA would be required to review. Among the review’s objectives would be revising the medical application form to provide greater clarity and guidance to applicants, aligning FAA policies with present-day qualified medical judgment and practices, and publishing objective medical standards “so that the public is fairly advised of the criteria that determines an airman's medical certificate eligibility.”
Specific goals of the review would focus on revising the medical questionnaire to ensure its questions are appropriate and “aligns” with current medical practice and judgment.
The fifth and final provision in the PBOR would make FSS briefings conducted by Lockheed Martin subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
EAA’s government relations staff worked closely with Sen. Inhofe and others to help him develop the bill.
The association believes enacting the Pilot’s Bill of Rights would bring balance and fairness back to the FAA’s enforcement system and minimize the opportunity for administrative headaches stemming from the sometimes-confusing medical application form.
The Senate bill was introduced on July 6 and referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
As this AirVenture Today edition was being finalized, no hearings on the measure have been formally announced.
During his planned visit to AirVenture Saturday, Sen. Inhofe will be answering questions about the bill and asking attendees to contact their own senators to express support.