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Closer than everCloser than ever

Third class medical reform is closer than ever before, but it’s a complex issue and we know you have questions. Here are answers to the questions AOPA members are asking.

What is the current state of play?

On Nov. 18, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee considered the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 and several possible amendments to it. The committee accepted the Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) amendment, which includes third class medical reform, as well as updates to the FAA notam system and provides protections for pilots who volunteer in the public interest. Other amendments offered by Sen. Bill Nelson were defeated. The committee deferred a vote on the amended legislation due to scheduling issues, but a date for the vote is expected soon. Once it passes the committee, the legislation will go to the full Senate, where it has 69 cosponsors. Similar legislation has already been introduced in the House where it has 150 cosponsors. That legislation will need to be voted on, then any differences between the House and Senate versions will need to be reconciled before the measure can go to the president for a signature.

Who will benefit from this reform?

Anyone who flies with a third class medical certificate can benefit from this reform. In fact, almost anyone who has held a regular or special issuance third class medical certificate within the past 10 years from the date the legislation is enacted will never again need to visit an aviation medical examiner (AME). If you’ve never held a third class medical certificate (student pilots for example), you will need to get a medical certificate one time only. If your regular or special issuance medical certificate lapsed more than 10 years before the legislation is enacted, you will need to get a medical certificate one time only. And if you develop certain cardiac, neurological, or psychological conditions, you will need a one time only special issuance medical.

What’s in the bill?

If you’ve held a regular or special issuance medical within the past 10 years, you may never need to get another medical certificate. If you’ve never held a medical certificate or if your certificate expired more than 10 years before the legislation is enacted, you will need to get a third class medical certificate one time only. And if you develop certain cardiac, neurological, or psychological conditions, you will need to get a third class medical certificate one time only.

You will need to visit your personal physician at least once every four years and make a note of the visit in your logbook. You do not need to report the outcome of that visit or file any paperwork with the FAA.

You also will need to take online training in aeromedical factors every two years. The training will be offered free of charge.

Pilots flying under the new rules will be allowed to operate aircraft that weigh up to 6,000 pounds and have up to five passenger seats plus the pilot in command, at altitudes below 18,000 feet, and at speeds of up to 250 knots. Pilots, if appropriately rated, can fly VFR or IFR in qualified aircraft.

I understand I will need to get a one-time special issuance medical if I have certain medical conditions. What are those conditions?

Those conditions are described in the federal aviation regulations and are limited to an established medical history of the following:

  • Cardiovascular: myocardial infarction (heart attack); coronary heart disease that has been treated by open heart surgery, cardiac valve replacement; and heart replacement.
  • Neurological: epilepsy; a transient loss of control of the nervous system; and disturbances of consciousness without satisfactory medical explanation of the cause.
  • Psychological: personality disorder that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts; manifested or may reasonably expected to manifest delusions, hallucinations, grossly bizarre or disorganized behavior, or other commonly accepted symptoms of psychosis; severe bipolar disorder; and substance dependence within the previous two years as defined in FAR 67.307(4).

When will these new rules go into effect?

Once the legislation has been signed into law, the FAA will begin a rulemaking process to make the regulatory changes required by the legislation. To ensure that pilots don’t have to wait indefinitely, there is a provision in the legislation that says if the FAA has not produced a final rule within one year of the legislation becoming law, then pilots can operate within the parameters of the legislation without fear of enforcement action. In other words, once the legislation has been enacted, pilots will be able to fly under its provisions within one year. Less if the rulemaking is completed more quickly.

How does this help me if I’m on special issuance?

If you currently hold a special issuance third class medical certificate (or have held one within the past 10 years) and do not suffer from or develop one of the specific cardiac, neurological, or psychological conditions identified as exceptions, you will never again need to go through the special issuance process. That means you will no longer need to repeat expensive and time-consuming medical tests and submit complex paperwork to the FAA in order to fly. Obtaining a special issuance medical certificate can cost thousands of dollars—that’s money you won’t have to keep spending year after year. Even if you have one of the listed conditions, you will need to get a special issuance one time only—again a savings of thousands of dollars and countless hours of your time.

What if my regular or special issuance medical expires before the law takes effect? 

If your regular or special issuance medical certificate expires before the new regulations take effect, you may choose to renew it in order to keep flying.  Whether or not you choose to renew your medical certificate to cover the gap period, you will be allowed to fly as soon as the new rules take effect, provided your medical expired within the 10-year window following enactment of the legislation.

What if my medical becomes more than 10 years old before the law takes effect?

The clock on the 10-year lookback starts the day the legislation is enacted, not when its provisions take effect, which could be up to one year later. So, the date the legislation becomes law is the date that counts when it comes to determining whether or not your certificate was issued within the 10-year window. If your medical was issued more than 10 years before that date, you will need to go through the medical certification process one more time in order to fly under the new regulations.

Why did AOPA compromise on the reform language?

To put it bluntly, we were faced with a choice: Make compromises that would allow medical reform to move forward and help hundreds of thousands of pilots or allow this latest attempt at medical reform to die. A number of lawmakers made it absolutely clear that they would not support legislation that completely eliminated the third class medical. The compromises we arrived at represent the very best deal we could get for pilots while winning sufficient support in Congress to keep the legislation alive. We recognize that this is not a panacea and that not every pilot who was hoping for relief will get it. Nevertheless, this legislation has the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of pilots, and that’s worth doing.

Will this affect me if I still want to fly as a sport pilot?

Not at all. You may still fly light sport aircraft with at least a sport pilot certificate and a valid driver’s license in lieu of a third class medical certificate.

Do the new rules include twin engine operations?

As long as the aircraft meets the specifications of the legislation, it qualifies. So, twin-engine aircraft that weigh less than 6,000 pounds and have room for up to five passengers plus a pilot in command qualify, provided they are flown at speeds below 250 knots and altitudes below 18,000 feet.

Isn’t the requirement to have had a medical certificate within the past 10 years only a move to a 10-year renewal of a medical?

No. If you are a private pilot and have a valid medical certificate (regular or special issuance) within 10 years from the date when the bill is signed into law, you may never have to visit an AME again. You will simply have to take an online medical education course every two years and visit your personal physician once every four years and note that visit in your logbook. No requirement exists to report the outcome of the visit to the FAA.

What are the requirements for the online education and how much will it cost?

You will have to take the online education course every two years in order to remain eligible to fly under the provisions of the legislation. The beauty of the online education course is that you’ll be able to do it anywhere and anytime you have Internet access. That means you can do it at home, on your lunch break at work, at night, on the weekend—any time and place that works for you. The online education course will be available free of charge to all pilots—not just AOPA members—from the AOPA Air Safety Institute.

Will I be able to get insurance if I fly under these new rules?

Insurance companies have not yet addressed how they will handle medical reforms and are unlikely to do so until medical reform becomes law. Our experience with the sport pilot regulations showed little or no impact on insurance availability or rates. Since each company uses slightly different language regarding medical requirements, the best thing to do is to contact your insurance broker or company and ask how they will handle anticipated reforms. History indicates that compliance with the applicable regulations is typically all that is required by insurance companies.

Can I go to any doctor for the general medical exam required every four years?  How does the FAA know that I complied with that rule?

Yes, you can go to any primary care physician for your exam, and you do not need to visit an AME. To demonstrate compliance, just enter the visit in your logbook. There’s nothing to report to the FAA unless specifically requested.  

Elizabeth Tennyson

Elizabeth A Tennyson

Senior Director of Communications
AOPA Senior Director of Communications Elizabeth Tennyson is an instrument-rated private pilot who first joined AOPA in 1998.
Topics: Advocacy, Pilot Health and Medical Certification, Light Sport Aircraft

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