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Efforts Underway to Explain, Enhance and Expand Pilot's Bill of Rights

Sept. 2, 2013

Listen to an NBAA Flight Plan podcast on the Pilot's Bill of Rights.

Even though it was just signed into law by President Barack Obama last year, the Pilot's Bill of Rights (PBR) is already being targeted for improvement by members of Congress and aviation advocates around the country.

The PBR lays out in federal code the rights of flightcrews under investigation by the FAA. Those rights include access to all FAA – and FAA contractor – data used by the agency to build an enforcement case against them, as well as the right of crewmembers to decline requests for information from FAA inspectors.

"Pilots are now afforded a Miranda-like warning," said attorney Alan Farkas, co-chair of Chicago law firm SmithAmundsen's aerospace practice. "They're under no obligation to communicate with the FAA during an investigation."

Farkas, who will lead a seminar on the Pilot's Bill of Rights at the NBAA Chicago Regional Forum on Sept. 12, noted some flightcrews have reported FAA officials making demands for information in a manner they found intimidating, leading pilots to respond even when it was not in their best interest to do so.

Prior to the enactment of the PBR, Farkas said, the National Transportation Safety Board, which decides cases involving infractions against the Federal Aviation Regulations, often gave special deference to FAA investigators. That is no longer supposed to be the case under the Pilots Bill of Rights, he noted.

"There are areas of this measure that still must implemented as intended," Farkas said. Among them, language in the law that enables pilots to appeal FAA enforcement decisions in federal district court. That language leaves open to interpretation whether the U.S. District Courts conduct a new trial, as intended, or simply review the paperwork generated by an FAA enforcement case, Farkas explained.

Another area where further pilot education is warranted is the way FAA officials approach enforcement issues, said Farkas.

"On one hand, the FAA is telling pilots they don't have to answer their questions on enforcement matters. But at the same time, they're also being more aggressive in demanding records of flight activities as well as maintenance records," he noted.

Additionally, a NOTAM improvement program mandated by the PBR is also still under construction, said Farkas. "In this aspect of the measure, the goal is to organize all Notices to Airmen in a user friendly manner for pilots who don't have the benefit of professional support."

In addition, the PBR calls on the FAA to revamp the aeromedical certification process. This process is well underway with a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office. Ultimately, Farkas expects the FAA to eliminate non-medical questions from the medical application, and to ensure greater consistency between medical science and certification requirements. The implementation deadline for the medical improvements was left open in the PBR.

"For the business aviation community, in light of the aging pilot population, removing well controlled medical conditions from the list of disqualifying conditions may be especially important," said Farkas.

Farkas said he and congressional backers of the PBR are now formulating possible revisions to the measure, hoping to clear up some of these ambiguities and further its protections beyond the cockpit.

"Right now, there's a requirement that any airman who is the subject of an investigation be notified," he said. "But that only includes actions based on flight activities. It doesn't include issues related to aircraft certification or mechanical issues."

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