Regulatory Update: Keeping Pilots and the Public Flying Safely

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

While the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the airline industry, ALPA continues to press regulators to maintain high safety standards and bring occupational health improvements to the flight deck while monitoring and acting on exemptions that could weaken the hard-won gains of recent years. The following are among several issues the Association has recently addressed.

Medical Certificate Extensions

Recognizing early on during the COVID-19 pandemic that aviation medical examiner resources would be scarce, ALPA successfully advocated to the FAA that pilots who had medical certificates expiring between March 31 and May 31 be allowed to continue to operate with their current medical until June 30. As Air Line Pilot went to press, Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization for U.S. airlines, had requested another extension, but the FAA had yet to act on it.

Transport Canada also issued an extension allowing pilots who currently hold a medical certificate expiring on or before June 1 to continue to exercise the privileges of their permits, licenses, or ratings until August 1, subject to the conditions listed in the exemption notice dated March 17. In addition, an exemption dated June 3 permits pilots who are in good health, with no changes since their last medical, to extend their current medical to as much as until March 31, 2021, simply by completing an attestation form. There are conditions that won’t permit an attestation, in which case a teleconference with a civil aviation medical examiner (CAME) must occur and a decision made on whether further assessment is required. Also, some CAMEs have returned to offering in-person examinations for renewals, with appropriate personal protective equipment and other measures.

Changes to Oxygen Mask Use Requirements

ALPA has been concerned about the risk of transmissible disease spread due to the design of pilot oxygen masks, which precludes them from being properly disassembled and cleaned between uses.

During the pandemic, ALPA successfully advocated for the FAA to implement the regulatory change included in the 2018 FAA reauthorization that increased the flight level threshold from above Flight Level 250 to above Flight Level 410—at which a pilot at the controls is required to don and use the oxygen mask when the other pilot leaves his or her control station.

As stated in the ALPA Operations Bulletin 2020-01, this rule change became effective March 23 and pilots should continue to follow their company procedures but expect their company to issue updates to flight operations manuals to reflect the regulatory changes to the requirement.

New ASAP Advisory Circular

ALPA has been strongly advocating for improvements to the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), including getting auto-acceptance of reports added to the 2018 FAA reauthorization. The FAA was to have acted on the provision in 2019. But due to ALPA’s efforts during the pandemic, on March 31 the agency finally issued updated Advisory Circular (AC) 120-66C, which includes the auto-acceptance provision.

In addition, the AC is designed to allow more flexibility to align with the safety management system (SMS) and includes new guidance and a reference to a process flow for the ASAP and SMS interface. It also encourages an Event Review Committee (ERC) to create and develop its own policy and procedures manuals that are realistic for the operational environments.

The AC also enables all ASAPs to be continuing programs, without expiration, and subject to review by the program signatories every two years to ensure the appropriate objectives are being met. In addition, the FAA’s attendance at an ERC meeting is optional, depending on what types of reports the ERC is considering at a particular meeting.

Cargo Operations in Passenger Aircraft

While much of the flying public has delayed travel, aircraft that would otherwise transport passengers have been pressed into service, carrying cargo in the main cabin.

Regulatory agencies and aircraft manufacturers have provided guidelines to enable operators to carry cargo in the main cabin. Most notably, the FAA issued Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 20008 that outlines guidance for transporting cargo while utilizing existing approved stowage locations in the passenger cabin, including overhead bins, storage closets, and under seats.

Transport Canada issued Civil Aviation Safety Alert (CASA) No. 2020-04 that addresses operational aspects, crew composition, and procedures such as a risk assessment and mitigations for carrying cargo on passenger seats and other areas of the cabin. The CASA emphasizes that dangerous goods can only be carried by operators holding an approval to do so, and dangerous goods can’t be carried in the passenger cabin.

A4A recently filed two separate petitions for exemption: one to use passenger aircraft with seats installed to haul cargo and the other with seats removed.

The first exemption, No. 18561, was issued on May 20 and allowed for cargo—excluding hazardous goods—to be loaded on installed passenger seats, as long as passengers aren’t on the aircraft. The cargo can’t exceed 50 pounds per seat place or 110 pounds in a single package per triple seat. In addition, 20 pounds of cargo is allowed to be placed under seats, and no cargo is allowed to extend above seat-back height. Also, cargo can’t be loaded in stowage compartments where portable oxygen bottles, protective breathing equipment, or equipment containing lithium batteries are stored.

The granted exemption, effective through December 31, also called for each aircraft to have its passenger convenience and oxygen systems deactivated, have environmental control system settings configured to minimize the likelihood smoke would enter the flight deck and maximize crewmembers’ ability to detect fire, provide sufficient access to the cabin-deck cargo to allow for effective firefighting, have fire extinguishers available, and be staffed with at least two trained crewmembers whose duties are to detect and fight a potential fire.

Commenting on A4A’s second petition (Docket FAA-2020-0492), ALPA raised several concerns: “We support the intent of the petition and agree that it’s necessary due to these unprecedented downturns in passenger traffic to allow carriers to utilize their resources to transport emergency medical supplies,” said Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), ALPA’s Aviation Safety chair, in a June 3 letter to the Department of Transportation (DOT). “However, these are unfamiliar and unique operations that require special attention and additional safety considerations before the FAA can grant the exemption.”

Regarding the requested exemption for passenger aircraft with seating removed, ALPA is urging that no dangerous goods—such as certain types of lithium batteries—be allowed in the converted passenger cabins and that cargo is easily accessible in the event of a fire, flight crews have adequate protective equipment, handlers receive additional training for loading cargo, adequate cargo restraints are installed, and airlines consult with the FAA’s Cargo Focus Team to verify that they don’t exceed the current operating limitations of their aircraft.

ALPA continues to monitor draft regulations and petitions for exemption in both the United States and Canada that may impact aviation safety and security. These recent examples are a testament to that vigilance and to the Association’s mission to provide the line-pilot perspective.

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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