AIN Blog: Torqued: Is Expanding the “Pilot’s” Bill of Rights to Corporate Certificate Holders a Good Idea?

 - September 1, 2014, 12:15 AM

Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), father of the original Pilot’s Bill of Rights (PBOR), is proposing some amendments and additions to his original law. According to a press release issued by the senator’s office at the end of June, “[T]he first Pilot’s Bill of Rights was a victory for the aviation community and made possible by the support of pilots and industry leaders across the nation. Since its implementation, I have heard from the aviation community that more improvements still need to be made to cut red tape.

“The goal of Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 is to continue addressing unfair practices and regulations toward the aviation industry. Today I unveiled my draft legislation for how to accomplish this goal, and I am also requesting feedback from the aviation community on how this legislation can best meet their needs and ensure a safe and innovative industry that is free of heavy-handed bureaucracy.”

I think the senator means well and I believe that he is trying to correct some of the wrongs of heavy-handed FAA enforcement action that I and others have written about regularly. And I applaud him for that. But I have to admit that I got off to a bad start with the first Pilot’s Bill of Rights when I found out just before it was signed into law by President Obama that, contrary to its title, it didn’t apply only to pilots but to all airmen certificate holders. This includes mechanics, aircraft dispatchers, air traffic controllers and others. What’s the big deal, you ask? Wouldn’t it have been worse not to be treated the same as pilots? Well, for one thing, I believe that people should have notice that a law that affects them is about to change so they can review it themselves and provide input. And, no, pilots and mechanics were not affected the same by changes to the law.

By the time I learned of the legislation and started spreading the word, it was too late. The law had passed and was on the President’s desk for signature. I have not met a single mechanic or talked to a single mechanics’ association or union that had any idea that this bill was winding its way to the President for signature and could affect a mechanic’s rights. As it turns out, while the bill could have hurt mechanics, the NTSB corrected the biggest problem for mechanics in its implementing regulations. In brief, the law as written applied only to certificate actions, not civil penalties. Without the NTSB fix–its regulations apply the same requirements to certificate and airmen civil penalty actions–the changes to the law could have resulted in the FAA pursuing more civil penalties against airmen to avoid having to comply with the more onerous new requirements of the PBOR, in particular the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence. Substituting civil penalties for certificate actions would have had a greater impact on mechanics, because mechanics can continue to work with a suspended or revoked certificate under the supervision of a certificated mechanic. 

Expanded Reach

I want to reiterate my concerns that the law is still referred to by an erroneous and misleading title. Now, however, the law seeks to expand its applicability to cover corporate certificate holders, including Part 121 and 135 air carriers, Part 145 repair stations and others such as manufacturers and other air agencies. So, the heading is even more misleading and does not inform either certificate holders or the public that changes might be coming. The public has a right to know that FAA investigations of air carriers and repair stations–including the major U.S. airlines–will be affected by these changes, and deserves the opportunity to provide input. As it stands, with a misleading and inaccurate title, it’s unlikely that consumer groups will be aware that the proposed law could affect the FAA’s ability to investigate and prosecute unsafe airlines, manufacturers and repair stations.

Which brings me to my main concerns with expanding the law to cover corporate certificate holders regardless of size. In my experience–both as a mechanic working for numerous airlines over my decades in aviation and my nine years as an NTSB member investigating aircraft accidents and reviewing FAA enforcement cases–I have come across a number of operators (large and small) that engage in intentional, unsafe conduct. For example, I have seen more than one airline and repair station that maintained a double set of maintenance records: one for the FAA’s eyes that showed all the maintenance properly performed and the real record, with open safety items, critical airworthiness directives that were past due, and so on.

I’ve seen cases where airlines brazenly push pilots to fly over flight and duty time or with inadequate rest and then doctor the records to make it appear as though the flights were flown legally. I’ve seen aircraft operated over gross weight to get those last bags on or to add extra passengers; aircraft that tanker fuel and then make regular overweight landings that cause structural problems that go unrepaired–until a landing gear fails and the airplane crashes. I’ve seen pilots, mechanics and other employees fired for reporting safety problems. And I’ve seen the aftermath of intentional violations of Federal Aviation Regulations in more than one smoldering wreck.

These are by far the minority of operators. But they have a disproportionate safety impact because of their disregard for safety. I want to protect the rights of the legitimate operators who violate the rules unintentionally but I don’t want to hamstring the FAA in investigating operators who intentionally disregard significant safety regulations. I think applying some of the provisions of the PBOR 2 to certificate holders could have the unintended consequence of impeding much-needed safety investigations that serve to protect the public from unscrupulous operators.