Are We Too 'Flexible' in Certifying Private Pilots?

Editorial, by Jon L. Jordan, MD, JD

Over the past several years, there has been a growing interest throughout the world in FAA's airman medical certification practices and philosophies. One philosophy that some persons question, including a few of our own aviation medical examiners, relates to our greater flexibility in granting special issuances to private pilots as opposed to air carrier and other commercial pilots.

The arguments against such flexibility rotate around the thought that, in the event of a medical incapacitation, an air carrier or commercial pilot usually has another pilot on board who can take control of the aircraft and safely land. In contrast, the private pilot often has no such "safety net" and, therefore, a medical incapacitation is likely to have severe safety consequences. It is argued that this means we should be more conservative when it comes to granting special issuances to private pilots. I have difficulty accepting this argument.

In the case of an air carrier or other commercial pilot, the highest level of safety should be our goal -- this is to best protect the fare-paying passenger who, in my belief, is entitled to as safe a journey as can reasonably be made. While it is true that most medical incapacitations involving a two-member crew do not result in aircraft accidents, the margin of safety, should an incapacitation occur, is too narrow to take a significant risk.

In the case of the private pilot, I think we can be more flexible and allow that pilot to assume some risks for him or herself that we would not permit in air carrier or other commercial operations. We have exercised this philosophy since the very early days of the regulation of civil aviation, and the concept is clearly embedded in our current medical standards.

This philosophy is frequently challenged regarding the safety of persons who fly as invitees of the private pilot. My response is that these persons, just like the pilot, assume a certain amount of risk that would not be expected in an air carrier or other commercial operation. The risk derives not only from the medical status of the pilot, but the pilot's proficiency and experience as well as the airworthiness of the aircraft.

By taking a more flexible approach to the certification of private pilots, we are able to gain valuable experience regarding certain medical conditions, their treatments, and their impact on aviation safety. Our favorable experience frequently allows us later to apply similar certification policies to commercial pilots with a data-derived indication of the insignificance of the risk.

One might suggest that our approach, allowing greater flexibility in the medical certification of private pilots, constitutes experimentation with safety in private operations. This suggestion might have some validity if private pilots who are granted special issuances experience a significant number of medically related accidents. However, data collected by researchers at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute clearly indicate that they do not.

Given all the arguments and considering our favorable experience in granting special issuances, I think we'll stay our certification course.

JLJ