In the wake of a ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on April 2, 2021, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and two other general aviation organizations sent a letter to the FAA, asking that it address “significant confusion and concern in the aviation community regarding the impact of the decision on compensated flight training.”
Leaders from AOPA, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) sent the letter on April 19 to the FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami, asking for guidance related to the court’s judgment and its potential negative impact on compliance issues and enforcement efforts.
The letter stated: “When pilots look for guidance on what they can and cannot do, they look to the Federal Aviation Regulations and FAA policy announcements, not court decisions. We, therefore, urge the FAA to expedite a direct and final statement of its position on the impact of the Court’s decision.”
AOPA and other GA organizations filed a “friend of the court” (amicus curiae) brief in anticipation of a ruling, cautioning the court to narrowly tailor its decision to avoid negative implications for a wide variety of flight instruction provided to owners in their own aircraft.
In its ruling, the court declined to lift a cease-and-desist order issued by the FAA against Warbird Adventures of Kissimmee, Fla. The judgment concluded that Warbird Adventures was operating a limited category aircraft for compensated flight training without a required exemption. Unfortunately, the court went further and stated that a flight instructor who receives compensation for flight instruction is carrying persons for compensation or hire. This occurred in the form of an unpublished opinion, meaning the court did not see precedential value in the ruling, but the FAA could cite the decision as precedent in future cases.
“We filed the brief with the court for just this reason,” said AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker. “We’ve been concerned that a decision from the court, which may have limited understanding and appreciation of standard aviation practices, can have a negative and wider downstream impact on flight training. It’s important that the FAA clarify the practical impact of this ruling on flight training, as a whole. There are many flight schools and CFIs that have been left confused, as well as owners of limited category aircraft who may be unable to obtain flight instruction in their own planes unless they have an exemption, or if the instructor is not compensated.”
The letter centered on three major aspects of flight training in the context of the Court’s decision:
The characterization of flight instruction
The letter argued that the Court’s characterization of instructor compensation as flying for hire is contrary to the FAA’s longstanding position that a CFI is paid for giving instruction, not piloting. This ruling could impact the FAA’s characterization of compensation for flight instruction, flight tests, and line checks.
Flight instruction in limited category aircraft
The letter explained that the FAA has not prohibited owners of limited category aircraft from paying an instructor to receive training in their own aircraft in the absence of an exemption. It argued that owners who wish to pay for flight training in their own aircraft be able to do so in the name of safety.
Flight instruction in other categories of aircraft
Along with limited category aircraft, the letter further explained that aircraft are used for flight training in a variety of contexts, including individual ownership, shared ownership, flying clubs, flight schools, and air carriers. As such, the letter asks that the FAA provide clarification regarding how flight training in these contexts may be impacted by the court’s ruling.
The GA organizations are concerned that the FAA order, and the subsequent court decision, only feed into the confusion among flight instructors and schools about what is, and isn’t, allowed in flight training. At the same time, the groups cite their common understanding with the FAA that flight training is the cornerstone of safe flying, and having wide and easy pathways to obtain flight training is vital. As such, the groups are requesting necessary clarifications so that flight training can continue to build and maintain a healthy and safe GA community.
Read AOPA's story.