Published December 23, 2015
WASHINGTON -- After Sen. James Inhofe landed his small plane on a closed runway at a rural South Texas airport last October and sent workers on the ground scrambling, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered him to take remedial piloting lessons.
Now it's FAA officials who are getting a lesson from the 76-year-old Oklahoma Republican on the pitfalls of crossing a senior lawmaker.
Inhofe, who's been flying for 50 years, is sponsoring a bill to strengthen the position of pilots when contesting FAA enforcement of safety regulations in cases like his.
"With any bureaucracy that has the power to take action against an individual, it's our job in Congress to ensure there are appropriate safeguards in place to prevent agency overreach," Inhofe said in a speech to the Senate before introducing the bill last week.
Pilots sometimes aren't given access to all the evidence that might help their case, he said. They can be punished for not following notices on safety conditions at specific airports even if the notices weren't publicly available before the flights, he said.
Pilots can appeal FAA decisions to the National Transportation Safety Board, but the board usually "rubber stamps" the agency's recommendations, Inhofe said.
"I was never fully appreciative of the feeling of desperation until it happened to me," he said. "I did nothing wrong but at any time I could have suffered a revocation of my license."
There were trucks and workers on the closed runway, which was marked with a giant yellow X. Inhofe said he didn't see the workers until it was too late to safely abort the landing. The FAA didn't post a notice online warning pilots of the runway closure until days after the incident, he said.
Inhofe's bill is backed by private pilots' groups. They include the powerful Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has about 400,000 members, and the Experimental Aircraft Association, which has about 170,000 members. One-quarter of the Senate had agreed to co-sponsor the bill before it was introduced.
The matter is very important to "the single-issue people who fly airplanes," Inhofe told senators.
"People say they are all fat cats. ... They are not wealthy people. They are single-issue people."
In Washington parlance, "single issue" refers to people who vote and direct their political contributions based on one issue they feel passionately about. The owners and pilots group sometimes is referred to in Congress as the National Rifle Association of aviation because of its grass-roots political clout.
"We at AOPA are pleased to see that this measure has received broad support from so many U.S. senators because it will help provide a degree of certainty, enabling pilots who follow the complex regulations governing aviation to fly with confidence," said Craig Fuller, the group's president.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown declined comment on the specifics of Inhofe's allegations or his bill.
"The FAA's primary concern is the safety of the aviation system. We will review the proposed legislation," Brown said in a statement.
Last year, about 450 people were killed in nonairline aviation accidents in the U.S., according to NTSB. The board recently designated improving the safety of private and non-airline commercial aviation as one of its top safety priorities.
The bill would:
--Require FAA make all evidence in enforcement cases available to pilots 30 days prior to a decision.
--Allow pilots who wish to bypass the NTSB to take their appeals of FAA decisions directly to court.
--Require FAA improve its system of providing safety notices to pilots based on recommendations from an advisory panel composed of pilot groups.
--Require FAA improve its system of certifying pilots as medically fit for flying based on recommendations from an advisory panel composed of pilot groups.
--Make weather and other preflight information pilots routinely receive from FAA before flying available later to pilots who request it for use defending themselves against enforcement actions.
Several safety experts said the bill's provisions on making information available to pilots are reasonable. But they disagreed that NTSB doesn't give pilot appeals a fair hearing.
"The vast majority of times the FAA does make a good case," said former NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker. "That doesn't make (the board) a rubber stamp."