The FAA will begin formal rulemaking to consider whether to allow private pilots to use a driver’s license in lieu of an FAA medical certificate in some circumstances, the agency announced on April 2. The announcement comes two years after the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) filed a joint petition asking the FAA to expand the third-class medical exemption to cover more recreational pilots. Possibly because the FAA failed to respond to the AOPA/EAA petition, Congress proposed its own legislation, the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act (GAPPA, House Bill H.R. 3708 and Senate Bill S.2103), which is currently making its way through both the House and Senate.
A rulemaking effort would take many years to accomplish and could be interpreted as a way for the FAA to further delay responding to the AOPA/EAA petition while mollifying members of Congress who sought action through the GAPPA legislation. However, when it announced the new “Private Pilot Privileges without a Medical Certificate” project, the FAA explained that it “is still considering a March 20, 2012 petition from the [AOPA and EAA] for an exemption from FAA rules to allow AOPA/EAA members flying recreationally (and according to certain operational limitations and restrictions) to conduct certain operations without having an FAA medical certificate. The FAA is considering whether it can provide any relief to the medical requirement, while maintaining safety, prior to completion of the rule.”
The GAPPA is more liberal than the AOPA/EAA exemption and would allow pilots to fly aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with up to six seats, VFR and non-commercially, without a third-class medical certificate. Other limits would include carrying no more than five passengers, remaining below 14,000 feet msl and flying no faster than 250 knots.
The AOPA/EAA exemption would allow pilots without a third-class medical certificate to carry up to one passenger in single-engine aircraft with up to four seats and fixed landing gear, in VFR weather, not for hire or in furtherance of a business and only between sunrise and sunset. The exemption would also require covered pilots to complete a self-study course on aeromedical subjects every 24 months. AOPA and EAA point out that this is much more medical education than most pilots currently receive.
It is too early to assess the FAA’s rulemaking plans; the agency said that it would release the rulemaking plan later in April on the DOT’s Significant Rulemakings website. The plan was not posted as this issue went to press.
“We are pleased to hear the FAA is considering alternatives to an FAA medical certificate for certain pilots,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “Included in NBAA’s membership are pilot-businessmen, especially light business aircraft owners, who fly themselves in furtherance of their business needs and could benefit from relief from FAA third-class medical certification requirements.”
The Government Accountability Office released a report that highlights deficiencies with the pilot medical certificate application process. Presumably improvements in these processes, especially for special-issuance medical certificates required for certain medical conditions, could help pilots who are frustrated with the system and see the third-class medical exemption/rulemaking as a way of providing relief. Interestingly, the first sentence in the GAO report supports the FAA’s claim that medical certification is necessary. “Aerospace medical experts GAO interviewed generally agreed that the [FAA’s] medical standards are appropriate,” the GAO noted, adding that about 400,000 pilots apply for medical certificates each year.
AMEs Weigh In
Roughly 3,300 Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs) conduct the 400,000 pilot medical examinations, and about 63 percent of those are for third-class medical certificates, according to the GAO. If an average third-class medical exam costs about $100, then AMEs could be facing the loss of up to $25 million in revenue, although it’s unlikely that all pilots who would normally need a third-class medical would forego it under the new rules. The VFR-only limitation, for example, will not help pilots who need to fly IFR.
AMEs are not happy about the rulemaking, and the Civil Aviation Medical Association (CAMA) issued a statement on March 24 that supports continued medical oversight of the pilots covered by the GAPPA bill. “The aviation physiological environment is unique, and to have no medical oversight, as proposed by such actions in these bills, presents a significant concern for public safety.”
CAMA recommends an alternative approach that includes full implementation of the new Conditions the AME Can Issue (CACI) program, which allows AMEs to issue a medical certificate for conditions that previously required special issuance, such as pre-diabetes, arthritis, asthma, glaucoma and others. The recommendation also suggests further improving the process for conditions that require special issuance and implementation of the “super-AME” concept. Super-AMEs would be authorized to do special issuances, and this concept appears to have been introduced by FAA federal air surgeon Fred Tilton as far back as 2006. Finally, CAMA suggests “relaxed medical requirements for the recreational pilot while still involving medical oversight.”
CAMA did not provide additional details on any of its four recommendations, but on April 2 sent a letter to Congress stating its “strong opposition” to the GAPPA bills because elimination of the third-class medical for certain private pilots “will seriously threaten the safety of affected pilots, their passengers and the public below.”
CAMA pointed out that the third-class medical requirement “is neither costly nor burdensome, being required every five years below age 40 and every two years thereafter. Its very existence deters individuals with clearly unsafe medical conditions from applying. Individuals with serious and even life-threatening heart, lung, brain, psychiatric and alcohol/substance abuse conditions could declare themselves fit to fly. Self-declaration would free those individuals to carry five passengers at high altitudes at speeds approaching 300 miles per hour. Complete oversight for these pilots would constitute a clear and present danger to aviation safety.”
AIN asked CAMA if it could cite any formal FAA studies that support the need for the third-class medical certificate and if it could explain why pilots flying without a third-class medical would “constitute a clear and present danger.” CAMA had not responded to AIN’s request by the time this issue went to press.