General aviation now has “a friend at the top” in U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in an interview with AOPA President Craig Fuller during EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.
That assertion—and Inhofe’s revelation that the conservative senator and the Democratic former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., are close friends who have discussed aviation issues—brightens prospects for new legislation to assure pilots fair treatment when dealing with the FAA bureaucracy in enforcement, medical certification, and other matters, he said.
On another front, the Oklahoma senator, who has attended EAA AirVenture for 34 consecutive years, hinted that the FAA’s demand that the Experimental Aircraft Association pay about $477,000 for air traffic services at general aviation’s largest annual gathering might be revisited.
Asked by Fuller why the agency was taking its tough line with general aviation on the AirVenture fees, Inhofe replied, “The bureaucracy wants to grow.” In 1996, the FAA ran on a $4.6 billion operating budget, he said. Now that budget has grown to $9 billion despite a smaller “case load” and a reduced pilot population.
Inhofe has long been a critic of what he regards as the FAA’s bureaucratic culture, but he said in the interview that his understanding of the problems it creates crystallized when he had to deal with the agency in a much-publicized enforcement case stemming from landing his aircraft on a runway closed without a notam having been issued to warn pilots to avoid using it.
Offering apologies to his friends who work for the FAA, Inhofe described its bureaucracy as “almost as bad as the EPA.”
Inhofe told Fuller and the AOPA Live pilot audience that he is calling his new legislative proposal “Pilot’s Bill of Rights II,” following up on the Pilot’s Bill of Rights that was signed into law in August 2012. The law guarantees pilots under investigation by the FAA expanded protection against enforcement actions via access to investigative reports, and air traffic control and flight service recordings. It also requires the FAA to provide pilots the evidence being used as the basis of enforcement at least 30 days in advance of action.
Fuller said the bill’s passage helped general aviation’s advocates address problems long of concern to pilots.
“It opened up for us, with your leadership, the ability to address some issues legislatively that we couldn’t get addressed administratively,” he said.
Since passage of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, Inhofe said, the National Transportation Safety Board has cooperated with provisions clarifying the relationship between the NTSB and the FAA in enforcement cases. The FAA, he said, has not.
As an example of the FAA’s response to the law, he pointed to the notices of investigation that the FAA now presents to applicants for medical certificates. They indicate to him that the agency is “completely turning it around” to thwart the legislation’s purpose.
Inhofe kept up his criticism of the agency, blaming bureaucratic pressure for his inability to get a committee hearing on the Pilot’s Bill of Rights for more than a year—a logjam that finally broke when he complained about the problem to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Reid said, ‘Well let’s just pass it without a hearing,’” Inhofe said. “I have to give credit. I got help from Harry.”
The interview broke more news with Inhofe intimating that prospects might be improved for the AOPA/EAA petition to let many pilots fly recreationally on the basis of a driver’s license instead of a third-class medical. The petition, submitted on March 20, 2012, has been stalled, with top FAA officials explaining that the change is not a priority, Fuller said.
With the EAA still burdened by the FAA’s demand that the organization pay about $477,000 for expenses or air traffic control staffing at AirVenture 2013 as a result of budget cuts under sequestration, Inhofe said Foxx considered the agency’s action “grossly unfair.”
“And he may be changing this thing,” Inhofe said.
Fuller noted that Foxx, as mayor of Charlotte, worked and defended the city’s airport and “knows the situation at the local level.”
Discussing the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program, Inhofe and Fuller agreed that Congress’s action to preserve the program, overturning the FAA's cancelation of the program, represented a victory that protected pilot privacy and sometimes, security.