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FAA urged to release delayed airman certification standards

AOPA and other members of an FAA working group have called on the agency to resume releasing new volumes of airman certification standards that have been frozen since 2019 during a dispute over the federal government’s administrative procedures.

It’s a bureaucratic snarl that has flown mostly beneath the flight training public’s radar since the first of six published ACS volumes made its debut in 2016: In 2019, ACS publication was “brought to a halt due to the reinterpretation of the FAA’s responsibilities with regard to standards publication,” the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee’s Airman Certification System Working Group wrote in a February 23 letter to top officials and legal advisors at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.

The policy question that stopped the modernization effort to replace legacy practical test standards volumes with updated airman certification standards occurred shortly after changes to the DOT’s administrative rulemaking procedures in 2019.

In brief, if pending ACS volumes would be regarded as a "'back door’ to rulemaking” or would impose “undue burdens on regulated entities” by establishing mandatory testing standards without going through a lengthy federal rulemaking process—as would be required, for example, if the FAA were to propose a new regulation—it would scuttle a much-needed overhaul that has been in progress since 2011. During the ACS rollout, many FAA handbooks and training texts have also been updated to meet the needs of modern applicants and integrate more efficiently with the new standards.

The impact of the delay on flight training has been “vast,” the letter said, noting that the snafu has left training and testing providers to rely on outdated standards or in some cases, “no published standard at all.”

“With the rapid proliferation of new entrants (e.g., drones, powered lift, vertical takeoff and landing, and urban air mobility), the ACS framework is needed now, yet the regulator continues to fall further and further behind industry innovations and opportunities to improve safety,” it said.

“A common sense approach is that the ACS should not be considered rulemaking or guidance, but instead a framework for internal agency governance of certification processes,” the group wrote.

It added, “We understand that the need for a nimbler approach to FAA document publication is not limited to the ACS, and that officials are actively working to identify a solution for issues we’ve raised here.”

“AOPA has long supported and participated in the development of the ACS through the joint working group effort between the FAA and aviation industry. Requiring the ACS to be published through a rulemaking process would limit the flexibility to provide timely updates to these safety-critical documents and would jeopardize the collaboration and trust built between the FAA and aviation industry,” said Christopher Cooper, AOPA senior director of regulatory affairs and AOPA’s representative to the working group.

Before the ACS publication schedule was put on hold, volumes went into effect for private pilot—airplane, instrument rating—airplane, commercial pilot—airplane, commercial pilot—military competence, airline transport pilot and type rating for airplane, and remote pilot—small unmanned aircraft systems. These current ACS and PTS volumes remain valid at this time. 

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, Pilot Regulation, Training and Safety

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