A modest proposal to boost general aviation

 - November 2, 2009, 10:42 AM

Aviation has always been a tightly knit and closed society. We have our own language, ethical standards and barriers to entry so formidable it’s a wonder that people make the effort to become pilots, mechanics, controllers, flight attendants, airplane builders and so on.

The recent recession highlighted the fact that aviation of all stripes is extraordinarily vulnerable and that this niche industry shrunk considerably during the downturn. And recent efforts by governments all over the world are not going to help aviation climb out of its current hole anytime soon, but will lead to more shrinkage and a continued loss of jobs across all segments, including airlines, corporate flight departments, manufacturers, suppliers, charter operators, flight schools and even the FAA.

David Wartofsky has come up with a simple way to reverse the slide: eliminate the requirement for the third-class medical certificate for private pilots flying aircraft weighing 6,000 pounds or less.

Wartofsky knows about surviving the constant onslaughts against aviation; he bought an airport– Potomac Airfield–near Washington, D.C., before 9/11 and has done a fantastic job keeping the airport open in the face of severe restrictions and the government’s security vendetta against general aviation operations. (Note to the authorities: it was airliners that were used in the 9/11 attacks, not light airplanes that cannot by any stretch of scientific imagination do enough damage to make them worthwhile as terrorist vehicles.)

Wartofsky’s suggested rule change is to amend FAA’s definition of the third-class medical certificate (limited to private pilot, non-commercial, not-for-hire) to include the following: “a valid driver’s license is required to pilot any aircraft,” and “a third-class medical certificate is required for operation of aircraft heavier than 6,000 pounds max gross weight.”

In his proposal to U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood, Wartofsky points out that this would help clear up unnecessary regulations. And he adds, “FAA’s current medical requirements for operating a small private aircraft are comparable to DOT’s requirements for commercially operating a 65,000-pound truck. Although clearly prudent for commercial flight operations and larger aircraft (whose demands on the operator are significantly higher and which pose much greater risk to others than any automobile), imposing commercial medical standards onto pilots of small private family airplanes seems unnecessarily burdensome and needlessly restrictive. If a pilot is safe to drive an automobile, [he or she is] probably safe to fly a small airplane. When legitimate medical reasons force a pilot to stop driving, [he] will lose [his] driver’s license and for the same legitimate reasons will be stopped from flying.”

Too often, the government works hard to erect dubiously beneficial obstacles to participation in a given activity, like upcoming aviation security regulations and environmental restrictions. The third-class medical certificate is one obstacle that keeps many people from spending money on aviation, and its elimination would result in an immediate boost for flight schools, aircraft manufacturers, FBOs and even the FAA, which would have more constituents to oversee. Long term, the effects of lowering the barrier to entry for new pilots would have an enormously beneficial effect on aviation, because we know that the more people enter at the bottom of the aviation food chain, the more pilots are created, the more mechanics are needed, the more airplanes get built, the more airlines don’t have to worry about new supplies of future pilots and dying airports will see an influx of new business.

FAA administrator Randy Babbitt has commented on this subject, because he was asked this very question at the “Meet the Administrator” session at EAA AirVenture in July. (Full disclosure: I asked the question.) His response was that it was too much of a safety issue to consider. He is wrong. Every single case of a pilot becoming incapacitated or dying and someone else having to take over the controls has involved a pilot with a current and valid medical certificate. There is no evidence that eliminating the third-class medical certificate would result in any more pilots dying in the air due to medical issues. The fact that glider pilots are not required to have medicals supports this conclusion, as glider pilots do not die in the air at a greater rate than their medically “certified” power-plane brother and sister pilots.

Anyone can propose a new FAA regulation, and Wartofsky has done so. The process takes a long time and a lot of effort and it goes nowhere unless there is a groundswell of comments to move it forward. Submit your comments to the FAA.