Pilots are human. They make mistakes – statistically not as often as most mortals – but they do screw up from time to time. No pilot wants to run out of fuel and land on a busy highway. No pilot wants to be involved in an accident. In fact, most of pilot training involves avoiding such troubles. It’s drilled into them that they be prepared for any flight condition, take every precaution, follow checklists and procedures and be ready for any emergency. It’s part of being a pilot.
That being said, highly trained, exceptionally prepared airline pilots have managed to land on the wrong runway at the wrong airfield at least one hundred and fifty times in the past twenty years.
When a misstep leads to a mishap, pilots are subject to investigation by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and if serious enough, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). In that case, the airman becomes the subject of investigation “relating to the approval, denial, suspension, modification or revocation “of his or her certificate. No pilot wants that!
Momma Never Said There Would Be Days Like This.
Since pilots love being in control and fear losing their certificates more than anything, imagine their frustration if, while under investigation, they were denied access to air traffic data or to any flight data that could help defend their actions. Imagine how helpless they would feel if they had no access to what was being said about them – or if they really could not voice any objections until the case was closed and they could appeal. Doesn’t sound very American, does it? Well, that’s the way it was in America until recently.
How Many Senators Does It Take To Right A Wrong?
Legislation to protect a pilot’s rights began the day Oklahoma Senator and private pilot James Inhofe landed his twin engine Cessna on a closed Texas runway in October, 2010 and became the subject of an FAA investigation. The Senator admits landing on the closed runway was a mistake, especially since it had construction crews on it at the time. He will also tell you he didn’t realize the runway at Port Isabel-Cameron Country, Texas was closed or that people were working on it. Apparently he hadn’t noticed, read or heeded the NOTAM (Notice to Airman) about the runway closure.
The problem for the Senator was not the mistake but the mistreatment that followed. Senator Inhofe learned firsthand what American pilots go through when under investigation by the Federal Government. The U.S. Senator felt as though he had no rights and no say in the way the investigation was conducted. The result of the infraction was mandatory remedial training which further fueled the Senator’s ire. Good thing, too! Because the whole incident got him angry enough to write a Pilot’s Bill of Rights, get it approved with bipartisan support from 65 U.S Senators and get it signed into law by President Obama before the end of summer in 2012.
It Took An Act Of Congress!
In the old days, the National Transportation Safety Board used to defer to the FAA for interpretation of their own rules when it came to determining the ramifications of pilot error. The Pilot’s Bill of Rights or as Congress calls it “Public Law 112-153”, eliminates the deference to the FAA and gives both FAA or NTSB equal weight in deciding the fate of the airman’s certificate. While that doesn’t sound very helpful, it does provide for more than one view of the situation and could have an impact if the NTSB were to find an interpretation of the FAA rules capricious or arbitrary as it relates to an individual case.
Far better news for pilots is that the NTSB is now required to follow Federal Rules of Evidence and Federal Rules of Civil procedure. You heard right. They have to play by the Federal rule book and follow Federal Court rules “to the extent they are practicable.” This begs the question what rule of law was in place before Congress acted?
What The Bill Does For Pilots They Could Not Do For Themselves Before.
Before the law, the only way a pilot could appeal was to take his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. That’s a costly trip to Washington that could take months, maybe even years.
Now, however, the airman can take his or her case to a U.S. District Court which is a venue that’s a lot cheaper, closer to home and less time consuming.
The real improvements come in the way the FAA must inform airmen they are under review.
- They must inform an airman under investigation of the nature of their offense
- They must inform the airman that an oral or written response is expected, but if that the airman chooses not to respond no adverse inference will be taken
- They must inform the airman that “releasable” portions of the report will be made available to them
- They must inform the airman that they are entitled to air traffic data (including ATC data from contract towers), ATC tapes, radar data, controller statements as well as any other investigative reports the FAA may possess that would facilitate the airman’s defense (NOTE: ATC data is recorded and stored from 5 to 45 days before being destroyed or discarded, making it imperative that a Letter of Investigation be sent in a timely fashion and that any requests for data be made by an airman expeditiously.)
- The FAA must give airman access to all relevant information for 30 days before an enforcement action can move forward.
There are several other issues the law currently addresses:
- It calls for improvement in the method of presenting NOTAMs like the one pointing out the closed runway which the Senator obviously missed.
- It mandates the FAA improve its medical certification process and its associated forms. The law mandates further clarity so applicants can understand what medical restrictions they may or may not have and what their reporting responsibilities clearly are.
- And lastly, as we mentioned earlier, the FAA must adhere to Federal rules when it comes to evidence and other civil law procedures.
At present Senator Inhofe and others in the aviation community are pushing for additional changes to the law. Among the things he wants is an adherence to Federal Law when it comes to Customs and Border Patrol searches of GA aircraft. He wants to extend the Bill of Rights to other members of the aviation community, such as charter operators. He also wants the law to clearly state that if the FAA fails to notify an airman of an investigation, the FAA cannot press charges. Senator Inhofe is seeking up to nine additional changes to the law.
One more important thing. The phrase “airman” does not only refer to pilots. Maintenance crews hold airman certificates, too. Until this law was passed, maintenance people had just as little right to investigative information and data as pilots did. This law does for maintenance professionals what it does for pilots. It gives them the right to know why they’re being investigated and allows them access to public data they can use to defend their certificates.
The way airmen were treated while under investigation in the past was a mistake. The Pilot’s Bill of Rights Law fixes the mistake. We can thank Congress for that. As to why it took Congress so long? Well, I guess you can say they’re only human, too.