The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act of 2015 (the “Pilots Bill of Rights” in the Senate), if passed, would promote change to FAA medical certification regulations to allow some individuals to operate as pilots of “covered aircraft” without regard to any medical certification or proof of health requirement otherwise applicable under federal law. Understandably, this proposal has started some debate regarding the affect that passage of the Act would have upon safety for the American aerospace community when weighed against the burdens that the current regulation imposes upon some private and recreational pilots.

Currently, pilots with private or recreational pilot certificates must hold at least a third-class medical certificate. 14 CFR Part 61, §23(a)(3). The regulation for the third-class medical certificate requires pilots to obtain examinations to ensure sufficient vision, equilibrium, mental, neurological, cardiovascular and other physiological functioning in order to operate aircraft. 14 CFR Part 67, Subpart D. This examination must be performed by an aviation medical examiner certified by the FAA. 14 CFR Part 183. The proposed Act would eliminate these requirements in limited situations for flights in the United States.

It is important to note initially that the proposed legislation (H.R. 1086/S.571) does not change any of the medical certifications or health requirements for commercial pilots or airline transport pilots. It is intended to apply to private pilots and flights under Part 91 only, not to any flights for compensation. The bill, in its current form, contemplates changes to FAA Regulations “to ensure that an individual may operate as pilot in command of a covered aircraft without regarding to any medical certification or proof of health requirement …” provided certain thresholds are met.

Initially, to qualify for an elimination of the medical requirements on some flights, an individual must possess a valid State driver’s license and comply with any medical requirement associated with the driver’s license. As most will recognize, this is a substantial departure from the third-class medical certificate requirement. Most states have limited medical requirements and a basic eye examination for obtaining a driver’s license, and many depend only upon self-reporting of medical issues. This is a significant departure from the requirement of an examination by a certified medical examiner.

A pilot looking to fly without a third-class medical certification may do so only under limited conditions. No more than five passengers are allowed on qualifying flights. The individual may operate under either visual flight rules or instrument flight rules, but may not exceed an altitude of 14,000 feet above mean sea level and may not exceed an indicated airspeed of 250 knots. “Covered aircraft” under the proposed Act are defined as aircraft that are not authorized under Federal law to carry more than 6 occupants, and, have a maximum certified takeoff weight of not more than 6000 pounds.

The elimination of the third-class medical requirement in limited situations has been a subject of some debate. On one side, elimination of the medical requirements will allow some pilots that would not have previously qualified for the third-class medical certification to operate “covered aircraft” as discussed above, reducing barriers for many private pilots.. On the other hand, some question the elimination of the medical requirement, voicing safety concerns. For example, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) opposes the Act, stating concern for private and recreational pilots sharing airspace with Part 121 flights.   Drafters of the Act, apparently aware of these concerns, propose tracking and reporting of statistics with respect to small aircraft activity and safety incidents within five years if the Act is passed.

If passed, the Act will take effect 180 days after passage. The Act is currently pending consideration in the Subcommittee on Aviation for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A full text of the bill and the course of its passage in the House of Representatives may be tracked here and in the Senate, as the “Pilot’s Bill of Rights” (“S.571”), here.