New Student Pilot Rules: One Step Back, None Forward

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Readers of this blog know—or should know—that I have, from time to time, complained about GA’s tendency to incessantly blame and whine about the government’s poor treatment of the industry. Such diatribes tend to be too pat, lack any creative impulse and are boringly, depressingly predictable. So I try to restrain myself.

So when this story about the FAA changing the rules for student pilots scrolled by the other day, I read it and thought, well, this doesn’t seem, umm, ideal. But I’m gonna take a pass on it. And the next thought was wondering if anyone would call us about it.

“Have you seen this? This is insane. Are you going to comment on it?” The call was less than 24 hours in coming and it was from the operator of an upscale flight school who I’ve known for about 10 years. He trains all kinds of pilots in various ratings and has quite a few foreign students. The new rule will substantially impact his business because heretofore, students could march off to the AME and get their medical and student certificate in one stop. The new rule requires the application to go through a designated pilot examiner, a Part 141 school, a FSDO or a CFI. Let’s break that down.

Good luck with the DPE route. Many are booked up and if I’m not mistaken, they’ll be charging for this service. In any case, it will require a trip and/or an appointment. Ditto with the FSDO. The flight school owner tells me his FSDO is so unresponsive that it doesn’t answer either calls or e-mails. I suspect that not all FSDOs are that bad, but some certainly are. The CFI route seems easy enough, but the paperwork still has to go through TSA and the FAA originally said that would take six to eight weeks to turn it, AOPA’s Katie Pribyl told me this week. Now they’re pledging to make it three weeks.

For a flight school with foreign students, that’s a killer because what’s the student supposed to do, sit around for three weeks or a month waiting for a certificate he used to be issued on the spot? And will it be shipped to his home of record on another continent? Even for domestic students, the delay is a problem because it’s hard enough to keep students perking along in primary without an enforced halt awaiting the bureaucratic wheels to grind into action. I won’t be the slightest bit surprised if a significant number of students just say the hell with it right at that point.

Where did this bad idea come from? The first I heard about it was the story we ran this week, but it dates back to an NPRM that first surfaced in 2010. Here at AVweb, we try to follow these kinds of things closely, but I think I just missed it or forgot about it. Its origin was in Congress with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. No surprise there, right? Pribyl said the law requires student pilots to be TSA-screened prior to the FAA issuing the student pilot cert, hence the new rule. It comes from Congress, not the FAA.

This is yet another example of how effective terrorism is in eroding the basic institutional freedoms of western democracies, not through the attacks themselves but through our irrational reaction to them. We have in this country a psychotic culture of fear concerning terrorism and we keep electing people who do little but continue to stoke it. I’ve been appalled to hear in the current presidential campaign that we are in the midst of World War III and that our very way of life in the U.S. is at stake. No contemporary politician dare says what needs to be said: calm the &^%$ down. Take a deep breath and understand that you have a better chance of winning the Powerball than of being involved in a terrorist act.

So we’re mired in silly rules like this one which in no way contributes meaningfully to security, but has a measureable negative impact on the lives of people struggling to maintain the lowest reaches of general aviation. All for the sake of optics. Of itself, waiting three weeks isn’t an industry killer. But taken together with the other thousand cuts inflicted on GA, it’s just more drag and more bad news in an industry that desperately needs a tailwind.

What’s to be done? I’m not sure much can be, other than to raise hell with the GA caucus if the FAA or TSA falls behind on processing these approvals. Many firearms background checks are instantaneous. Why can’t the TSA turn student pilot certificates in a day or two? Or under a week? It’s not like Congress hasn’t given them the budget for the necessary data collection.

P.M. addition: I heard from a flight school owner with this additional comment: “My other concern is with foreign students. They are supposed to be in a full-time course of study and if they are sitting waiting on TSA and FAA , we are breaking SEVIS/ICE requirements for the student to be ‘legally’ in the country. We have a Part 141 school and our ground school can not be all done first then the flying….it just doesn’t work that way. So know we are breaking FAA rules by not following the syllabus.

“This is a mess. And to top it all off, the schools, CFIs and Chief Instructors (myself) have not been told how to do this. So nothing like saying we are responsible for something that has not been explained.Government bureaucracy at its finest!”