General-aviation advocates are confident that medical reform will be a reality soon, after the House last night passed an FAA funding bill that includes changes to the medical certification system for pilots. The Senate is expected to okay the bill later this week, and send it to President Obama for final approval. “This is a major step forward and makes us more optimistic that our efforts can finally reach the finish line,” EAA chairman Jack Pelton said in a statement released late last night. “While there are still some steps remaining, this is absolutely the farthest advance for aeromedical reform in a quarter century of efforts.” Provisions in the bill would eliminate the need for recurrent medical exams for most general-aviation pilots.
“The money and time that pilots and the federal government put into the third-class medical process can now be invested in programs and activities that actually make aviation safer,” AOPA President Mark Baker said last night. After the president signs the bill into law, the FAA will have up to one year to develop and issue regulations before the third-class medical provisions become effective. But the 10-year reachback that will allow many pilots to fly without needing another FAA medical exam will take effect when the bill is signed by the president, AOPA said. In addition to medical reforms, the legislation requires the FAA to develop regulations for marking towers between 50 and 200 feet tall.
Third-class medical reform is on its way to becoming law after the Senate voted this afternoon to approve the measure as part of a short-term funding bill for the FAA. The legislation, which won House approval on Monday, is expected to be be signed by President Obama before the FAA’s current authorization expires on Friday. Many pilots who have had third-class medicals issued within the past 10 years of the bill's signing will not need another exam by an aviation medical examiner. However, the FAA will have up to a year to develop and finalize the new regulations, which will require at least a valid driver's license and a doctor's checkup every 48 months for eligible pilots.
Another requirement in lieu of a third-class medical is completing an aeromedical education course every two years. The reforms are for pilots who have never had their medicals denied or revoked. Those eligible to be exempt from future medical certification will be able to fly privately in aircraft with up to six seats and a maximum takeoff weight of 6,000 pounds. Flights can be VFR or IFR, but must be no higher than 18,000 feet with maximum indicated airspeeds of 250 knots. Pilots flying with third-class medicals with special issuances also would not have to be re-certified, unless they develop a medical condition requiring a new special issuance. Those who have never had a medical must still get one-time certification from an AME to fly under the specified conditions.
“This is the most significant legislative victory for general aviation in decades,” AOPA President Mark Baker said. “These reforms will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of pilots from an outdated, costly, and unnecessarily burdensome system. This legislation will strengthen the private pilot-private physician relationship and improve awareness of medical issues throughout our community. It will help pilots save time, money, and frustration.” AOPA explains some details of the reforms on its Web site.
The FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, which funds the agency through September 2017, also includes a variety of safety measures including tighter enforcement of unmanned aerial systems and tougher penalties for laser-pointing at aircraft. The FAA also must develop regulations for marking standalone towers between 50 and 200 feet tall located in rural or agricultural areas. The regulations would target meteorological evaluation towers, which can be marked voluntarily, under current FAA policy.
Third-class medical reform was signed into law today after Congress approved the changes earlier this week as part of the FAA’s short-term authorization bill. GA organizations including EAA and AOPA have updated their outreach efforts to explain the upcoming changes, which aren't expected to take effect for a year to give the FAA time to finalize the new regulations. “It’s important to celebrate this moment, which has been a long time coming and resulted from an incredible amount of work over the past five years,” said Jack Pelton, EAA CEO and chairman. “This win is for everyone who loves recreational flight.” The legislation’s author, Sen. Jim Inhofe, will speak on the issue on Saturday, July 30 at the AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Regardless of when the FAA puts the new rules into effect, today’s signing means that many pilots who have had valid medicals at any time in the last ten years might not have to be re-certified to fly many aircraft weighing under 6,000 pounds. Exceptions include those who develop new medical conditions requiring a special issuance, for which a one-time medical would be required. “It has taken years of commitment and hard work to make these reforms a reality,” said Mark Baker, AOPA president. “AOPA and EAA started the current reform effort back in 2012 when we petitioned the FAA for a medical exemption but the terms of that petition were much more limited than what pilots will get under the new reform law. This is something our entire community can get excited about.”
Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, told AVweb on Friday that ongoing discussions with lawmakers over the last few years, and some compromises such as the 10-year window for medical exemptions, helped get the reforms passed. “It was a negotiated number that everybody felt comfortable with, and it just made a lot of sense to people,” Coon said. The new changes signed into law were proposed after unsurmountable opposition in Congress to expanding the sport-pilot rule to private pilots, which would have replaced third-class medicals with driver’s licenses and self-certification. Now, the rulemaking process is in the FAA’s hands, Coon said. “I’m hopeful that at some point they’ll come out and give industry and pilots the ability to comment and help them formulate those rules and then we’ll go from there.”
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