Pilot Records: This Goes in Your Permanent File!

Kent S. Jackson | October 8, 2020

The Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996 (PRIA) requires that air carriers, before hiring a pilot, request and receive specific documents from a variety of sources.

  1. From the FAA they must obtain all records regarding pilot certificates, ratings, medical certificates, and summaries of legal enforcement actions.
  2. From previous airlines, including FAR Part 91, for which the perspective pilot was employed in the past five years, they need all records regarding training, competency, disciplinary actions, terminations, or other causes for separation.
  3. From the National Driver Register, the hiring company must obtain all pertinent records concerning the motor vehicle driving of the perspective employee.

Does Past Performance Predict Future Behavior?

When you’re buying a mutual fund, the brokerage firm always states that past performance does not predict future returns. Try telling that to the NTSB. In a detailed analysis, the NTSB uncovered a series of accidents caused by pilots with a history of poor performance. Their current employers had not checked and were not aware of the pilots’ backgrounds. The death of a congressman in one of the accidents spurred Congress to write the new statute itself, rather than direct the FAA to formulate a regulation.

In February 2009, the crash of Colgan Air Inc. flight 3407, which was operating for Continental Airlines Inc., triggered the next regulatory milestone. The families of flight 3407 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 a 60-day extension of the FAA’s funding, which 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. Few commented on the requirement for the creation of a new Pilot Records Database.

The next event in this decades-long pilot records saga was the February 23, 2019 crash of Atlas Air Flight 3591. The NTSB found that the first officer had fundamental weaknesses in his flying aptitude and in his stress response. These problems further degraded his ability to accurately assess the airplane’s state and respond with appropriate procedures. The NTSB stated that the first officer had long history of training difficulties. He tended to respond impulsively and inappropriately when faced with unexpected events during training scenarios. These kinds of errors occurred with multiple employers and suggested an inability to remain calm during stressful situations.

How to Identify Bad Pilots

The NTSB stated that if the FAA had met the deadline and complied with the requirements for implementing the pilot records database (PRD) as stated in Section 203 of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, the PRD would have provided hiring employers relevant information about the first officer’s employment history and training performance. The NTSB found that the first officer had deliberately concealed his poor history and deprived Atlas Air of the opportunity to fully evaluate his aptitude and competency as a pilot.

The NTSB also 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 first officer had tried and failed to upgrade to captain at his previous company.

The NTSB proposed the establishment of a confidential voluntary data clearinghouse to share anonymous pilot selection data among airlines. Specifically, this database would house information regarding the effectiveness of predicting pilot success.

Not everyone agrees that a pilot database that never forgets a single failed checkride would automatically prevent accidents. The FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in March 2020, 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 August 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 past 15 years. The NPRM also creates a definition of corporate flight department and imposes significant recordkeeping and reporting requirements on these Part 91 operators of two or more airplanes that require type ratings.

Industry Response

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

Doug Carr, NBAA’s vice president of regulatory and international affairs, called the proposed rule a “full frontal assault” on business aviation, highlighting three significant concerns with the NPRM.

  1. The NPRM would require certain Part 91 operators to report substantial training, employment, disciplinary and proficiency-related events. This would impose a considerable burden on the operator. For example, proficiency could mean recording day and night takeoffs and landings, instrument currency requirements and more.
  2. The FAA proposes to include all check pilot comments associated with training and checking.
  3. The FAA’s attempt to define “corporate flight department” introduces untold unintended consequences for future regulations.

By statute, a pilot’s records cannot be removed from the PRD without a death certificate.  While nearly every state will allow a felon to have his or her records 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.

This article appeared in the October, 2020 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation as a Point of Law article.