Pilot Records Redux: If Adopted, This Iteration Will Last A Lifetime

The Pilot Records Improvement Act (PRIA) requires air carriers, prior to hiring a pilot, to request and receive: from the FAA, records pertaining to the individual’s certificates, ratings, medical certificates and summaries of legal enforcement actions; from other air carriers, FAR Part 91 and other operators who employed the pilot in the previous five years, records pertaining to the individual’s training, competency, disciplinary actions, and/or terminations or other causes for separation; and from the National Driver Register, pertinent records concerning the individual’s motor-vehicle driving history.

Congress inserted the PRIA into the 1996 Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act following airline accidents in which the NTSB found error by pilots with a history of poor performance, and the current employers had not checked and were unaware of the pilots’ backgrounds. The death of a congressman in one of the accidents spurred Congress to write the new statute, rather than direct the FAA to formulate a regulation.

The next pilot records milestone followed the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which was operating for Continental Airlines. According to many observers, the families of those who perished on that flight were instrumental in the passage of the “Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.” This was not an FAA Reauthorization bill, but rather an extension of the agency’s funding. The extension came with an extra 50 pages of “Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement.”

At the time, most industry observers focused on the new requirements for all airline pilots to hold air transport pilot certificates, and few commented on its requisite for the creation of a new Pilot Records Database (PRD).

The next event in this decades-long pilot records saga resulted from the Feb. 23, 2019, crash of Atlas Air Flight 3591. As noted in this “Wrong Right-Seater” (Cause & Circumstance, page 52), the NTSB found the first officer (FO) had fundamental weaknesses in his flying aptitude and a stress response that further degraded his ability to accurately assess the airplane’s state and respond appropriately. The Safety Board also pointed to the FO’s long history of training performance difficulties and his tendency to respond impulsively and wrongly when faced with an unexpected event during training scenarios at multiple employers.

The NTSB went on to state that had the FAA met the deadline and complied with the requirements for implementing the PRD ordered 10 years ago, that database would have provided hiring employers relevant information about the FO’s employment history and training performance deficiencies. The Safety Board discovered that the FO had deliberately concealed his history of performance deficiencies.

In addition, the NTSB criticized Atlas Air’s pilot screening process, which relied on designated agents to review pilot background records and flag significant items of concern. In this instance, the screening process missed the fact that the FO had tried and failed to upgrade to captain at his last company.

The Safety Board proposed the establishment of a confidential voluntary data clearinghouse to share deidentified pilot selection data among airlines. The intent of the proposal was to help predict pilot success in training and on the job and in the doing would benefit the safety of the flying public.

However, not everyone agrees a pilot database that never forgets a single failed check ride would automatically prevent accidents. The FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in March of this year, not quite a decade after the congressional mandate for the PRD. The NPRM requires Part 135 and 121 operators to report historical records dating back to Aug. 1, 2005. Operators will be required to upload employment, training, checking, testing, currency, proficiency and disciplinary records for every pilot under their employment over the last 15 years.

Notably, the proposal also defines a “corporate flight department” and imposes significant recordkeeping and reporting requirements on those Part 91 operators of two or more airplanes that require type ratings.

Comments to the NPRM by the business aviation industry pushed back on the FAA’s proposal and reasoning. The NBAA and others argued instructor and check pilot comments should be used to help direct additional opportunities for training, and not to prevent a pilot from being hired.

Doug Carr, NBAA vice president of regulatory and international affairs, called the proposed rule a “full frontal assault” on business aviation, highlighting three significant concerns. First, the NPRM’s requirement that certain Part 91 operators report substantial training, employment, disciplinary and proficiency-related events would impose a considerable burden. For example, proficiency could mean recording day and night takeoffs and landings, instrument currency requirements and more. Second, the FAA proposes to include all check pilot comments associated with training and checking. Finally, he said, the FAA’s attempt to define “corporate flight department” introduces untold unintended consequences for future regulations.

And by statute, a pilot’s records could not be removed from the PRD without a death certificate. While nearly every state allows a felon’s records to be expunged with a showing of good behavior, a pilot will have to live with a failed check ride for the rest of his or her life.

Kent Jackson

Kent Jackson is founder and managing partner of Jetlaw. He has contributed this legal column to BCA since 1998 and is also a type-rated airline…