WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Pilot’s Bill of Rights, which made it through the legislative process in “record time,” according to an official with the Experimental Aircraft Association, has been approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and is now on President Obama’s desk awaiting his signature.
The president has 10 days from the time it made it to his desk on July 26 to sign the bill, said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate General Aviation Caucus and a CFI with more than 10,000 hours who introduced the bill.
“We have every reason to believe he will sign it,” added Doug Macnair, EAA’s vice president of government relations.
Once approved, the bill will “radically change your ability to defend yourself” if caught in an FAA enforcement action, he noted.
The heart of the bill is fairness, according to Kathy Yodice, an aviation attorney who has worked with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “We all want to respect the FAA rules,” she said, “but for a while that was getting eroded because of injustices allowed in the system.”
The Bill of Rights grew out of Inhofe’s own encounter with the FAA’s enforcement system. In 2010, Inhofe landed on a closed runway at Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport (PIL) in Texas. A builder and developer, Inhofe said he had landed at the airport “more than 300 times.” While PIL is uncontrolled, Inhofe did have flight following and as he approached the airport in his Cessna 340, a controller said he was “cleared to land,” according to the Senator, who acknowledges that that was unusual.
That was when Inhofe saw there were people working on the first 2,000 feet of the 8,000-foot runway. He landed beyond the workers, but frightened many of the workers. “People on the field called the Washington Post and it just broke my heart,” he said at AirVenture.
It took him four months to get the voice recording from the controller clearing him to land — “and I’m a U.S. senator,” he said. “I never saw the evidence against me and the FAA couldn’t show me the NOTAMs closing the runway.”
“If you are challenged by the FAA, you are completely helpless,” he continued. “You are at their mercy.”
Introduced at last year’s AirVenture, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights seeks to remedy “the serious deficiencies in the relationship between general aviation and the FAA, and ensures that pilots are, like everyone else, treated in a fair and equitable manner by the justice system,” he said.
The Bill of Rights covers several key areas. Perhaps the most important is that in an enforcement action against a pilot, the FAA must show the pilot all evidence 30 days prior to a decision to proceed with an enforcement action. “This is currently not done and often leaves the pilot grossly uninformed of his violation and recourse,” Inhofe noted.
It also makes contractor-run flight service station and contract tower communications available to pilots. Currently, if a request is made for flight service station information under the Freedom Of Information Act, it is denied because the contractor is not the government, per se, he said. “However, the contractor is performing an inherently governmental function and this information should be available to pilots who need it to defend themselves in an enforcement proceeding,” he said.
Another big change the bill brings for pilots is that in the appeals process, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) must conform with the Federal Rules of Evidence and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Previously, the NTSB operated under something called “statutory deference,” which meant that NTSB administrative judges and officials had to defer to the FAA’s expertise in appeals cases. “Too often the NTSB rubber stamps a decision of the FAA, giving wide latitude to the FAA and making the appeals process meaningless,” Inhofe said.
The bill also allows a pilot to appeal the NTSB’s decision to a federal district court judge. This is important because a review by the federal district court is “de novo,” meaning the pilot gets a new trial with the ability to introduce evidence and a new review of the facts, he added.
These changes to the appeals process are critical, according to Inhofe, who notes that it should create some fundamental changes at the beginning of the entire process.
“When we have access to appeals, it changes the attitude of the guy in the field,” he said, noting an FAA employee will be less likely “to harass” a pilot if he knows that his work is going to be checked. “They will be more fair,” he predicted.
The bill also requires the FAA to improve the NOTAM system, which would involve simplifying the system as well as archiving NOTAMs in a central location. “This will ensure that the most relevant information reaches the pilot,” Inhofe said.
“The NOTAM system after 9-11 is getting more and more convoluted,” Yodice said. “Pilots would make innocent mistakes, but they were being treated like ordinary criminals and it all could have been avoidable.”
Making innocent mistakes on the FAA’s medical application is another area where pilots often find themselves in trouble. That’s why the Bill of Rights requires a review of the medical process, including a revamping of the 8500-8 form.
“That medical application is antiquated and is asking questions that are no longer relevant,” Yodice said. “When the FAA finds something wrong on the application — even if it is just a mistake — they will seek to revoke all the pilot’s licenses and ratings. That could have been avoided if the form was clear.”
Non-profit general aviation groups will make up an advisory panel for the review of the medical process, as well as the NOTAM system.
Once the bill is signed, all of the provisions except the review of the NOTAM system and medical process will become effective immediately, according to Inhofe. The bill requires reports from the advisory groups on the NOTAMs and medical within a year.
For more information: Inhofe.Senate.gov