AIN Blog: Torqued: Spineless Legislators Set Wrong Priorities

 - November 1, 2012, 1:05 AM

Washington, D.C., has a reputation for doing nothing, and inaction is often the best-case scenario. But let’s take the time to really consider what you get–and what you don’t get–from a spineless bureaucracy and a feckless Congress. First, what you do get is ill thought-out legislation. What you don’t get is legislation that is desperately needed to protect the safety of the traveling public.

What you get, for example, is the so-called Pilot’s Bill of Rights, which takes away more rights than it grants (and applies to all airmen) and makes it much more expensive to enforce those rights–whatever they are–in an FAA enforcement case.

Stealth Legislation

You may wonder why I harp on the fact that, notwithstanding its name, this law applies to more than just pilots. Shouldn’t mechanics and other airmen certificate holders be glad, for once, that they got the same treatment as pilots? After all, we all know there’s a fair amount of pilot envy among the mechanic ranks.

The answer is simple. No. In my opinion, people affected by a law should have some notice that they’re affected by it, and it would be really nice for them to know before it actually becomes law. Well, this particular law affects mechanics and other airmen, but from the title of the legislation you would never know it. I think mechanics and their reps were caught unaware that a major piece of legislation affecting their rights–and in many cases their livelihoods–was passed.

To date, I have seen no review in maintenance journals of this law; in fact, I have seen no mention of it at all. I was recently talking to executives in one of the major unions representing mechanics and they had never heard of this legislation. Well, you can’t blame them. Even if they subscribe to a news service that contains search terms like mechanic or maintenance to keep up with an ever-changing regulatory world, those words would never come up to clue them in because the law never mentions mechanics or maintenance and all the press releases I’ve seen refer only to pilots. Talk about stealth legislation.

So now they’re caught unawares and stuck with the same awful legislation that pilots are stuck with, without having had a shot at analyzing the implications for themselves. And there could be big financial penalties for mechanics and pilots alike from this legislation. Since the law applies only to certificate actions, it could well drive the FAA to change its enforcement policy. No legislation or rule-making necessary. All it takes is a stroke of the pen. It’s called prosecutorial discretion, and even FAA attorneys have it.

Up until now, most cases against certified airmen were handled as certificate actions if they’re not covered by the remedial training program for GA or ASAP for airline employees. What’s to stop the FAA from deciding it’s too difficult to pursue certificate actions under the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, so let’s start issuing civil penalty cases? A lot of GA pilots and I know for sure a lot of mechanics (especially airline or repair station mechanics) would rather take a 30-day suspension than a fine of $1,000 or more, especially mechanics who can continue to perform maintenance–albeit under the supervision of a certified mechanic–even without a certificate.

Legislators Close Ranks

In fact, remedial training, the mildest form of FAA enforcement action (a tap on the wrist at best), is what started the whirlwind legislative push for this particular bill. Yes, this all began because a U.S. senator (Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma) took umbrage at being called to task by the FAA for committing an egregious safety violation, landing on a closed runway, right over the heads of construction workers working on that runway. According to the pilot deviation report, the runway was closed by Notam, with a large X placed on its threshold, and the senator admitted not checking the Notams and elected to continue to land even after he saw that the runway was closed and men and equipment were on the runway.

It seems to me the FAA had to really stretch to fit this violation into the remedial training program at all. But I’m sure that had nothing to do with the transportation subcommittee that the senator just happens to sit on.

Instead of being contrite and being glad that the FAA offered him the violation- and penalty-free remedial training option, Inhofe denied he did anything wrong and sought revenge against the FAA at whose hands this mild rebuke was administered. So in a Congress where bipartisanship is tough to find and Senate and House members never seem to agree on anything, sponsors on both sides of the aisle lined up to support one of their own and ram this legislation through.

The President signed it Aug. 3, 2012, with no apparent pushback whatsoever from the FAA. And what was the NTSB thinking? To the same degree as the airmen it affects, the Board is going to be stuck with this legislation.

So while Congressmen were lining up to sponsor the Pilot’s Bill of Rights and the FAA and NTSB were standing by mutely while the President signed it into law, what real safety legislation failed to garner that level of support or get signed into law? For one, there is still no rule or law protecting our most vulnerable fliers: children under the age of two can still fly unrestrained and they remain as vulnerable as ever to turbulence, runway overruns and accidents that would be survivable if they were properly restrained.

So while alphabet groups pat themselves on the back for passing a law that helps no one–except maybe aviation lawyers who can now charge higher fees to handle enforcement cases–I know that only an infant’s tragic death will move the FAA and Congress to finally pass an Infant’s Bill of Rights.