“We listened” Changes in medicals in spotlight as FAA adminstrator meets Oshkosh crowd

“We got to this place because when you spoke, we listened.”

That was the message from FAA Administrator Marion Blakey during her annual “Meet the Administrator” forum at AirVenture last month.

She was referring to last year’s forum, where she said she “took a lot of heat” when the subject turned to medicals. “Truth be told, that’s been drawing a lot of attention for several years, even before I got here,” she said.

The biggest complaint: The long wait time for medical certificate waivers.

“You wanted the Federal Air Surgeon to modify the medical certification system to reduce delays airmen were experiencing in the issuance of medical waivers,” she said. “That’s just what we did. We’ve been making changes incrementally for quite some time, and the IT investment — handling these electronically — is paying off,” she told the crowd, which was smaller than in previous years.

Those changes reduced the average waiting time from several months to 16 days. “Now, averages are just that — an average — and some of you have likely waited longer than the average to get your certificate,” she said. “That’s because we continue to see some very complex cases that require analysis and expert judgment.”

The FAA also convened groups of FAA flight surgeons to process cases in the queue for review. “This reduced the backlog immediately,” she noted.

“Other groups will be convened whenever necessary to deal with future backlogs. We also made it so that the regions can work cases that previously could only be worked by the Aerospace Medical Certification Division in Oklahoma.”

Blakey also noted that the number of conditions that pilots can fly with using a special issuance certificate has been expanded, so an illness or disease that may have resulted in automatic denial before might no longer be disqualifying.

“We increased it from 20 conditions to 35 conditions — renal cancer, melanoma, bladder cancer, heart attacks, bypass surgery, to name a few. We also actively pursued the EAA and other associations to encourage AMEs to participate in the special issuance process,” she said.

Blakey then told the audience that the FAA has proposed rulemaking to extend the interval for some medical certificates.

Under the proposal, the interval for the first-class medical certification would go from six months to one year.

Third-class medical certificates for pilots under 40 would go from two years to five years.

“It is estimated that these two changes will reduce annual applications by 75,000 and therefore provide better, quicker service to others,” she said.

A TURNING POINT

Blakey also noted that the industry is at a turning point with the development of Very Light Jets and Light Sport Aircraft, both of which were well represented at the show.

“By the year 2017, we anticipate that there will be 5,000 very light jets in service,” she said, then went on to note that there are more than 36 companies manufacturing and delivering LSAs at this time.

“Several manufacturers have reported that their 2006 production lines are totally sold out,” she said. “According to our Aircraft Registry, over 378 new factory-built aircraft have received special light sport aircraft airworthiness certificates.”

Blakey indirectly addressed the issue of user fees by reminding the audience of a promise she made the year before, that the FAA was committed to operating more like a business than a bureaucracy. She noted that doing this is a challenge because of the need to modernize the air traffic system to accommodate an anticipated increase in air traffic.

“As you know, we are projecting demand for aviation — both commercial and noncommercial — to grow by two to three times over the next 20 years,” she said. “We also know that the system as it exists now cannot handle such growth. We must increase the capacity of the system. Without modernization, congestion will increase and the entire aviation community will suffer.”

Blakey noted that there will have to be a change in how the aviation system is financed, and added that the opportunity to change funding structures only presents itself every 10 years, with the current system expiring Sept. 30, 2007.

“This new funding system does not have to entail broad user fees for general aviation,” she said. “There are multiple ways to recover a given amount of costs, and we do not believe that a one size fits all solution is necessary. While it is important that each group pay its fair share of the costs, let me be crystal clear: We do not want to create a funding system that stifles the GA community.”

After her speech Blakey took questions from the audience. A pilot from Los Angeles drew applause when he asked how the FAA was planning to block Congress from closing more airports the way Rialto Municipal Airport/Miro Field (L67) in California was closed by a rider that was attached to a transportation bill designed to extend a local highway.

She waited until the applause subsided before saying that the FAA was not in favor of allowing airports to close. She compared them to old growth redwood trees.

“Once you cut them down, you do not get them back,” she said.

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