Matt Thurber AIN ONLINE
Proposed Rule for Third-Class Medical Relief in Limbo
December 3, 2014
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  • An October 23 letter from a group representing owners of specific light aircraft types urged secretary of transportation Anthony Foxx and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to expedite an FAA notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that could change the way pilots are deemed medically fit to fly. The Type Club Coalition includes more than 30 organizations, although there are 19 signatories on the letter, including the Experimental Aircraft Association and the AOPA Air Safety Institute.

    The existence of an NPRM that addresses the third-class medical was revealed by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh show in July, but Huerta was careful not to identify the contents of the NPRM. The most recent version of the FAA’s regulatory tracking system shows that the NPRM project (RIN: 2120-AK45) was started on Feb. 4, 2014, and submitted to the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Secretary on July 24, 2014. The next step will be for the NPRM to move to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the FAA tracking document projected this would occur on November 30. OMB clearance is projected for Feb. 27, 2015, followed by publication on March 5. These dates are running nearly four months later than the FAA had originally planned. Once publication takes place, the public will be able to comment on the NPRM.

    Limited Private Pilot Privileges

    There are some clues as to the content of the NPRM on the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs website.

    The title of the NPRM is given as: Limited Private-Pilot Privileges for Pilots Who Do Not Currently Hold an FAA Airman Medical Certificate (Private-Pilot Privileges Without a Medical).

    The abstract describes the NPRM as follows: “This rulemaking would allow certain operations for individuals exercising private-pilot privileges without holding a current FAA airman medical certificate. The intended effect of this action is to provide relief from having to obtain a medical certificate for pilots engaged in low-risk flying, such as private pilots operating small, general aviation aircraft.”

    In its letter, the Type Club Coalition emphasized that sport pilots (under the sport pilot rules that have been in place for more than 10 years) are allowed to fly light sport aircraft without a third-class medical, just a driver license. The coalition also pointed out that glider, balloon and ultralight pilots have been flying without FAA aeromedical certification “for far longer than that. The current medical certification process is unnecessarily bureaucratic and often requires applicants to endure the expenditure of significant time and money simply to prove what they and their doctors already know: that they are fit to fly. Many otherwise active pilots stop flying every year, not because they can’t qualify for a medical certificate, but because the cost and effort of obtaining that certificate is too burdensome.”

    There is currently one submission in the docket for the upcoming NPRM, even though the proposed rule has yet to be published. This submission is from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Medical Advisory Board. This letter explains that the third-class “medical exam itself is unlikely to provide little, if any, benefit to general aviation pilots.”

    The letter points out that pilots self-certify whenever they fly, in between the two- to five-year interval when they must submit to third-class medical examination. The certification to the mandated standard is “based upon cursory medical examinations conducted by doctors who often have only the limited history and clinical information pilots provide…”

    The better option, the Advisory Board explained, “is a system that educates pilots about maintaining their medical health and provides them with information needed to continually self-assess their fitness before every flight. This system should encourage open and honest information exchange with the pilot’s long-time treating personal physician–something the current system discourages.”

    On the political front, the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act has 158 cosponsors in Congress and 20 in the Senate, but that legislation was referred to the subcommittee on aviation on Dec. 12, 2013, and has not seen any subsequent action. The Act would allow private pilots to fly with just a driver license, carrying up to five passengers, in VFR conditions, not for compensation, no higher than 14,000 feet and no faster than 250 knots.

    Opposition from AMAs

    There is opposition to the idea of allowing pilots to fly without formal FAA medical certification, from both the Civil Aviation Medical Association and Aerospace Medical Association. In a letter to the FAA administrator dated April 9, 2014, the AMA wrote that its executive committee and aerospace safety experts agree that the idea of private pilots flying without third-class medical certification “is not in the best interest of pilots or public safety.”

    The AMA pointed out that in an earlier AOPA/EAA petition for exemption from the third-class medical requirement, the two organizations cited only 99 out of 46,976 accidents where a medical cause was a factor. But, the AOPA/EAA petition added, “It is important to note that none of these accidents was prevented by the existence of third-class medical screening standards and the medical certification process.”

    However, commented the AMA, another study found that 1.2 percent of pilot applicants from 2008 through 2012 were not issued medical certificates. “The criteria are meant to protect the pilots and the public [from the effects of] significant medical issues,” the AMA wrote.

    The AMA letter goes on to dismiss the issue of the cost of medical certification, then delves into safety issues, at one point claiming: “Cars and trucks don’t fall from the sky onto people, but planes do!” The AMA cites a study of driving statistics that found 6.4 percent of car crashes “resulted primarily from driver incapacitations.” Extrapolating that to aviation and the 39,120 pilots that AOPA and EAA believe would be affected by the exemption (and presumably the NPRM), the AMA states, “we can assume 1,425 pilots could experience incapacitation during flight each year. Should the draft legislation currently being considered by Congress be approved, the number of pilots affected by the law would increase and [there would be] a concurrent 6.4 percent increase in the risk of aircraft accidents [attributable] to human incapacitation.”

    The AMA concluded: “We believe expanding the population of pilots allowed to fly larger, faster and more complex aircraft without an appropriate medical evaluation is not in the public interest and will eventually reduce flying safety.”

    For its part, the FAA released the following statement, “The FAA is committed to proposing a rule on third-class medical certificates for pilots and to ensure that all interested stakeholders have an opportunity to comment. The FAA and DOT are working diligently on this proposed rule and recognize this issue is of great concern to the general aviation community. The proposed rule will lay out the parameters that define how a person could fly without a third-class medical certificate while maintaining the highest levels of safety in recreational flying.”