DOT urges FAA to review medical certification process

 - August 30, 2007, 6:21 AM

The Transportation Department’s inspector general told the House aviation subcommittee in July that possible extensions to the durations of medical certificates and the planned raising of the airline pilot retirement age underscore the importance of the medical certification process.

Earlier this year the FAA published an NPRM to extend the period for which airman medical certificates are valid. For pilots under age 40, the validity of first-class medical certificates would be extended from six months to 12 months, and third-class certificates from three to five years.

“Since extending certificate expiration dates will result in fewer opportunities for [aviation medical examiners] to evaluate pilot medical fitness,” said DOT IG Calvin Scovel III, “it will be even more important for the FAA to take steps to ensure that pilots’ medical conditions are fully disclosed when applications for airman medical certificates are processed.”

Similarly, he said the FAA actions to ensure compliance with disclosure requirements will be important if the FAA changes the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots to 65.

Scovel said that his testimony was based primarily on a 2003 investigation called “Operation Safe Pilot,” which his office conducted with the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and U.S. Attorney Offices in California, with assistance from the FAA’s Western Pacific Region Flight Service and Chief Counsel offices. It was based on a 2002 investigation conducted by OIG special agents in California.

That investigation identified a private pilot who, for about 14 years, had been receiving Social Security Administration (SSA) medical disability payments while at the same time maintaining his FAA-issued medical certificate.

Scovel told the lawmakers, “This appeared to indicate a serious gap between the FAA’s safety regulatory program and the SSA’s medical disability program, wherein one or the other’s program was being defrauded.”

That in turn led to “Operation Safe Pilot,” which looked at about 40,000 pilot records in Northern California. The investigation uncovered more than 3,200 airmen holding current medical certificates while simultaneously receiving Social Security benefits, including those for medically disabling conditions that would have precluded them from obtaining medical certificates. That led the aviation subcommittee to question if there was a problem with pilots lying about their medical conditions to obtain a medical certificate.

In an FAA research study that analyzed the post-mortem toxicology reports in every fatal accident (386) during a 10-year period (1995-2005), researchers found toxicology evidence of serious medical conditions in nearly 10 percent of pilots. Fewer than 10 percent of these medical conditions (or medications used to treat the conditions) were disclosed to the FAA. Furthermore, of the 386 pilots included in the FAA study, 38 percent (147) were rated for air transport or cargo operations. Fifty-seven percent (219) were private or student pilots.

Of the total number of pilots involved in fatal accidents, one-third (127) held first- or second-class medical certificates. The subcommittee said these statistics suggest that falsification is not limited to recreational general aviation pilots.

Industry Cooperation
The only nongovernment witness at the hearing was AOPA president Phil Boyer, who asserted that the problem of fraudulent medical reporting is not widespread. According to Boyer, 0.25 percent of all general aviation accidents were caused by medical incapacitation, and nine accidents in nine years were caused by the incapacitation of a pilot flying with a fraudulent medical certificate.

Nonetheless, he said the association is concerned about the problem and wants to work with the FAA to solve it. To that end, Boyer proposed a four-point plan to help the FAA combat falsified pilot medical certificates. AOPA suggested that the FAA add a statement to the medical certification application warning pilots that some medical data would be shared with other agencies; create a one-year amnesty program to encourage pilots to report all medical visits and conditions to the FAA; establish a data-sharing program with other public agencies such as the SSA within the limits permitted by the Privacy Act; and help educate pilots about properly reporting all pertinent medical information and about the severe penalties and safety consequences of failing to do so.

Boyer reminded the committee that pilots are “conservative people who will ground themselves if they’re taking medication or have a medical situation that prevents them from flying safely that day.”

In a position paper, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) noted that none of the California pilots who falsified their applications for medical certification were employed as FAR Part 121 airline pilots.

Although the application states that all “nonroutine” medical visits to health-care practitioners should be reported, ALPA said, there is still considerable confusion about what constitutes nonroutine.

“Pilots rely heavily on the AME to assess whether a visit to a health practitioner should be reported as nonroutine,” the union added. ALPA said that medical issues that may be considered nonroutine to one AME could be considered routine by another, creating confusion for the pilot.