|Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), principal sponsor of the recently passed Pilot's Bill of Rights legislation, addresses the crowd at EAA AirVenture 2012. (photo by Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside)
By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and his family are attending their 33rd consecutive EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, staying in a campground. Unlike most attendees, however, the senator can justifiably claim substantial success addressing the needs and interests of American pilots.
That's because his Pilot's Bill of Rights (PBOR) legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives Monday, clearing the measure for the president's signature and enactment into law.
AirVenture Today spoke with the senator Saturday morning to ask him about the PBOR and how it, literally, came to pass.
"It was heavy lifting," Inhofe told us. "It took me a year and half."
The bill, numbered S. 1335, languished in the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during that time, without a hearing.
The unlikely hero? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada).
Credit where credit is due
"If it hadn't been for Harry Reid, we wouldn't have been able to do it," Inhofe allowed. "He said, 'Inhofe, you've always been fair with me.' And we have a great relationship."
So Sen. Reid agreed to move the bill to the Senate floor under expedited procedures, bypassing the commerce committee.
"We're good friends, and he has a sense of fairness. He said, 'Inhofe, you've had that [bill] for a year and a half, and you've got 76 co-sponsors. Ignore the committee; let's just go ahead and bring it to the floor.' And so I couldn't have done it without him," Inhofe said.
"I would have ended up doing it, but not in time for Oshkosh. That was my goal."
According to Inhofe, several other officeholders, in addition to Sen. Reid, deserve credit for their support and assistance. Those individuals include Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas).
In the House, Inhofe credits Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana), Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Illinois), Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin), Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tennessee) for their support and assistance.
'Cleared to land'
"The last holdout in terms of justice, of being guilty until proven innocent, is being hit in some kind of allegation by an examiner of the FAA and then not knowing what you did wrong."
That's how Sen. Inhofe sums up his view of the need for a Pilot's Bill of Rights.
The catalyst involves a landing on a closed runway at the Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport in Port Isabel, Texas (KPIL).
Said Inhofe, "I was handed off to Valley Approach," which vectored the senator's Cessna 340 to a 2-mile final for Runway 13.
Controllers then told Inhofe, "You are cleared to land." Unfortunately, people and equipment were working on the runway.
"I saw some people working on the west end of the runway...so I went over them and landed," Inhofe told us. "When we landed, the guy down there-the FBO operator-immediately called The New York Times and The Washington Post and told them of this 'horrible' violation."
The FBO operator also called the FAA.
Need for the bill
"I couldn't get them to tell me what I did wrong," Inhofe said.
"In defense of the FAA, they were in an awkward position, where that was the report [they received] and they had to do something. I understand that," Inhofe allows. "I have no complaint, except for six months, I thought I could lose my license any day and I didn't do anything wrong."
"No NOTAMs, cleared to land," Inhofe related, "and yet they finally felt they had to do something. [The FAA] said, 'You have to do a remedial go-around in that plane.'"
So he did, with a flight instructor.
But that wasn't the end of it. Other pilots who had found themselves engaging the FAA's enforcement apparatus began contacting the senator, sharing their stories.
That's when he sat down to draft a Pilot's Bill of Rights.
One portion of the PBOR makes significant changes to the enforcement procedures used against pilots by the FAA. Another portion addresses the medical certification process.
"You and I both know people who have had some kind of a problem, so [the FAA takes] their [medical] certificate away. Then they solve the problem and they get their certificate back, theoretically," Inhofe explained. "But there's no uniformity."
Instead, the PBOR contains a provision mandating an independent review of the medical certification process and forms.
The objective is to reduce misinterpretations, which have led the FAA to allege that pilots intentionally falsified their application, in extreme cases.
Further, aviation organizations like EAA and AOPA, among others, will form a panel advising the FAA on ways to improve the medical certification process.
The objective is to standardize procedures and provide greater clarity in the questions asked on the application form.
Another provision of the PBOR involves improving how the FAA disseminates the information in notices to airmen-or NOTAMs.
Inability to locate any NOTAM detailing the closed runway at KPIL-both before his flight and afterward during the FAA's enforcement process-was another issue Inhofe identified.
"The NOTAM remedy is [they] have to be in one central location," Inhofe said.
As with its provisions regarding the medical certification process, the PBOR requires the FAA to meet with aviation organizations comprising an advisory panel to simplify the NOTAM retrieval process and archive the information.
While many pilots will laud the provisions in Inhofe's PBOR, many others may shrug, suggesting the problems it addresses are similar to the tip of the iceberg.
Additional issues were raised during a forum session the senator held last year here at AirVenture. Although he declined to put them into his original bill, he took notes. AirVenture Today asked Inhofe what a future bill addressing the relationship between pilots and the FAA enforcement apparatus might include.
"Things that happen on ramp checks," Inhofe responded. "On a ramp check, they'll come in and start digging around, finding some pretty obscure required documents you may not have and then doing an emergency revocation.
"Now, we find out that other departments," like the Transportation Security Administration, Inhofe related, "are coming in" and doing ramp check-like activities.
"It's something that, really, the FAA should be doing, not the TSA."
"I can't tell you what will be a priority," he told us. "That will be determined by the AOPA and the EAA...what they think should be addressed."
"I have a lot of friends in the FAA who agree with me" on the need for a Pilot's Bill of Rights, Inhofe said.
Thanks to his efforts, that need now is being met.