AOPA implores FAA Administrator Garvey to put safety first by withdrawing readback errors interpretive rule
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is imploring FAA Administrator Jane Garvey to put safety first and withdraw an “interpretive rule” that places blame solely on the pilot for any errors in air traffic control clearance readbacks.
“Fix the problem, not the blame,” said AOPA President Phil Boyer. “Just as with the ticket program, the FAA is sending the message that enforcement is more important than safety.”
In April, the FAA issued an interpretive rule on Federal Aviation Regulation 91.123 concerning a pilot’s responsibility to understand and comply with air traffic control clearances and instructions.
The rule, in effect, absolves air traffic personnel from any legal responsibility to correct misunderstandings between pilot and controller. Simply put, if a pilot reads back an ATC instruction incorrectly, the controller has no legal obligation to correct the error. The FAA could then take enforcement action against the pilot for not complying with ATC instructions.
“This seems contrary to the administration’s ‘Safer Skies Initiative’ and joint FAA/industry efforts to improve aviation safety,” Boyer told Garvey.
Boyer said that pilots and controllers share responsibility for the safety and integrity of the air traffic control system. There is no evidence of pilots deliberately mishearing ATC instructions. Clearance readbacks are part of a checks and balances system that guards against miscommunication. That system depends on mutual trust between controllers and pilots.
“But this interpretive rule is a classic Catch-22,” Boyer said. “The pilot honestly believes he’s doing everything right, but the FAA can still hit him with an enforcement action. This rule will hinder pilot/controller communication, and that will affect safety.”
Interpretive rule serves FAA legal self-interests, not safety
AOPA said the interpretive rule serves only the self-interests of the FAA’s legal and air traffic divisions.
“The FAA’s Flight Standards Division has the expertise to determine how pilots should comply with regulations, and it is the only FAA division that could even remotely be considered as having pilots’ interests at heart,” Boyer said. “AOPA can’t find evidence in the rule that Flight Standards had any significant input.”
FAA trying to overrule NTSB
The FAA issued the ruling following several enforcement cases in which the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled against the FAA and in favor of the pilot. AOPA said that the FAA was trying to thwart congressional intent that NTSB have authority to independently review FAA enforcement actions.
“The FAA didn’t like NTSB’s rulings, so the FAA changed the rules,” Boyer said. “That flies in the face of fair and just principles of the law.”
Boyer told Garvey the interpretive rule was an abuse of the FAA’s discretionary authority and “ill conceived on many fronts.”
“Most onerous, it will rupture the cooperative relationship between pilots and controllers to the detriment of aviation safety. We implore you to withdraw this interpretive rule.”
The 345,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world’s largest civil aviation organization. More than one half of the nation’s pilots are AOPA members.
April 16, 1999