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How will Pilot's Bill of Rights impact Alaska aviators?

Laurel Andrews

Finally, some good news from Washington, D.C., for Alaska pilots? After several proposals that would have hurt Alaska aviation -- the near-demise of Essential Air Service in Congress and a proposed $100 increase in per-user aviation taxes, to name a few -- the U.S. Senate recently rallied a unanimous vote to pass a Pilot's Bill of Rights (PDF).

What it means for Alaska pilots

If the House passes its version of the bill (PDF) and President Obama signs it, pilots will see increased protections in several key areas of Federal Aviation Administration regulation. Among them:

FAA Investigations:

  • Pilots will be notified in a timely manner of any investigation that the FAA takes against them.
  • They will be ensured access to any air traffic data that is pertinent to the investigation’s proceedings.
  • After the decision is issued, pilots will be allowed to appeal the decision to the appropriate U.S. district court or court of appeals.

Notices to Airmen “NOTAM”:

  • NOTAMs have been criticized as an unnecessary burden to pilots, who must review an “overwhelming” number of notices before flight in a national airspace system. A NOTAM improvement process will begin in order to simplify and make useful the notices.
  • As a result of the improvement process, NOTAMs will be organized in a central public location, and will be available for pilots in a searchable format. They will be prioritized for the location that the pilot is flying in.

Medical Certification:

  • The application for medical certification has also been criticized as unfair. It will be examined in order to make changes that provide better clarity and guidance to applicants.
  • Changes to the medical certification application would allow for the consistent treatment of applicants, and will hopefully decrease the number of alleged falsifications due to unclear medical questions.

Alaska delegation loves Pilot's Bill of Rights; so does Harrison Ford

Alaska U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich both endorsed the bill of rights as essential for increasing protections for pilots. And of course they mentioned those fabled statistics on Alaska's per-capita pilot population.

Here's Begich: "Flying is a way of life in Alaska. It’s key to economy, jobs and tourism. With six times more pilots per capita than the rest of the country, it’s important to make sure pilots are treated fairly in their dealings with the FAA."

And Murkowski: "While so many other states have thousands of roads to get around on, Alaska’s skies are our highways. This legislation is imperative because we want to make sure our aviators are given the same rights and protections when their wheels are up as they enjoy when their feet are on the ground."

Star power didn't hurt, either. Action film icon and GA pilot Harrison Ford endorsed the legislation during a General Aviation Caucus forum on Capitol Hill. “I’m grateful [for the Pilot’s Bill of Rights],” Ford said. “It seems [like] a real justice issue that the behavior of the FAA should match the standard that we face everywhere else” he said.

A bill born from senator's FAA feud

The bill was brain child of an Oklahoma Republican senator better known as the most outspoken global warming skeptic in Congress. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a certified flight instructor, introduced the bill in October 2011 after he was investigated by the FAA in 2010 for allegedly landing on a closed runway. Inhofe remained unrepentant about the incident, placing the blame on the FAA’s NOTAM procedures and a problem with the airport attendant.

Inhofe hailed the Pilots Bill of Rights passage as a "big victory for General Aviation pilots all across the country."

Will it become law?

The bill is now awaiting a vote in the House, where it was referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on June 29. If it passes the House, it will go on to the president for signature. Only time will tell.

The bill (S.1335) can be reviewed in its entirety at The Library of Congress’s website.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com