In honor of the coming vacation travel season, the Senate is working on a bill that would loosen the requirement that pilots take medical examinations.
Yes! I know that’s been on your mind a lot, people. Next week, as you gather around the Thanksgiving table, be sure to express your gratitude to Congress. If you hear a small plane buzzing overhead, drink a toast to the future, when the folks in America’s cockpits may no longer be burdened with repressive, old-fashioned health monitoring.
Pop quiz: Which of the following aviation issues would you like to see your elected representatives resolve by the end of 2015?
”The U.S. Senate has an excruciatingly difficult time doing anything, and here they’re dismantling something that’s been working pretty well,” complained Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He is opposed to the bill in question, and that puts him in pretty select company. More than two-thirds of his colleagues are co-sponsors.
We are talking here about general aviation pilots, the men and women who fly private planes. They’re currently required to get a medical exam by an FAA-approved physician every five years, and then every two years once they pass 40. The pilots hatehatehate this rule. They claim the doctors are hard to find and charge too much money. But the great underlying fear is that some stranger with a stethoscope will strip them of the ability to fly.
It’s easy to understand why pilots want to stay aloft. I’ve enjoyed every non-campaign-related private flight I’ve ever taken, including in the two-seater owned by an environmentalist who once flew me over a lake full of pig feces that had been treated with chemicals that turned it the color of Pepto-Bismol.
However, I think I speak for most of America when I say that we ought to continue being a little picky about the people we let up there.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is a very enthusiastic 81-year-old pilot who starred in an exciting airborne adventure about five years ago, when he landed his Cessna at an airport in Texas despite A) The large “X” on the runway, indicating it was closed, and B) The construction crew working on said runway, which ran for their lives when he dropped in.
As a result, the senator had to take part in a remedial training program. This irritated him so much that he successfully sponsored the first Pilot’s Bill of Rights, which makes it easier to appeal that kind of harsh, unforgiving judgment.
The Senate commerce committee is now considering Inhofe’s PBR2, which would eliminate the current medical exam requirement. Instead, pilots would just write a note in their log every four years saying they’d been to a physician who said everything’s fine. The bill has 69 sponsors.
Very little in the current world of Washington is that popular. You may be wondering why. Well, although Inhofe is best known as the climate change denier who once brought a snowball into the Senate to prove the globe isn’t warming, he’s also a very powerful guy, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, an architect of this year’s $350 billion highway construction bill.
Plus, there are hundreds of thousands of private pilots, many of them rather wealthy. “Most of them are single-issue people, so it would be very good to join in on this,” Inhofe said pointedly in a recent Senate speech. Some small-minded observers suspect he also has personal skin in the game, what with having had quadruple bypass heart surgery and all.
The bill hit a small snag on Wednesday when Democrats on the Senate commerce committee proposed that the doctors who do the new exams – who could be anyone from a dermatologist to a golfing buddy – be given a government-approved checklist of problems to look for.
They lost on a party-line vote. “My trust is in the physician compared to the FAA,” said one of the Republicans. The real problem was apparently resistance from a certain snowball-making highway bill author.
“The answer has always come back from Sen. Inhofe’s staff: No,” complained Bill Nelson of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Nelson, you understand, was not arguing that a dermatologist should be off-limits as a pilot medical examiner. He just wanted to increase the chances that the patient would be asked if he was subject to dizzy spells.
At that moment the committee suddenly discovered it was lacking a quorum. But everyone expects the bill to rise again in triumph. “It would have been laughable except it’s so serious,” Blumenthal said.