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Is FAA's Web-Based Technology Investment Justified?

FAA Administrator Reports Progress to Airmen
by Mike Wayda

Reprinted with permission from Mike Wayda

The Federal Aviation Administration has made a huge investment in innovative technology and procedures to make same-day medical certification for pilots a reality. Just how effective were these efforts?

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, speaking to an audience of pilots at the Experimental Aircraft Association's 2006 AirVenture' Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, declared, "You wanted the Federal Air Surgeon to modify the medical certification system to reduce delays airmen were experiencing in the issuance of medical waivers. That's just what we did. We've been making changes incrementally for quite some time, and the IT [information technology] investment'handling these electronically'is paying off."

Administrator Blakey and senior FAA staff had a productive visit at the annual fly-in. Because of the Office of Aerospace Medicine's innovations to resolve the backlog in special issuance medicals, there were virtually no complaints on this usually hot topic at this year's "Meet the Administrator" session. The following excerpts are from the Administrator's remarks that pertained to certification:

"The changes we've made have reduced the average waiting time for a special issuance waiver from several months to 16 days. Now, averages are just that'an average'and some of you have likely waited longer than the average to get your certificate. That's because we do continue to see some very complex cases that require analysis and expert judgment.

"But more than 90% of the pilots who walk through the aviation medical examiner's door get their medicals on the spot. The other 10% now are looking at what's essentially a two-week wait. And that's as it should be. So, how did we do it?"

Reducing the Backlog

Working with the aviation community to identify ways to improve certification workflow, ideas were proposed, evaluated, and then enacted. "Specifically, we convened groups of FAA flight surgeons to process cases in the queue for review. This reduced the backlog immediately. Other groups will be convened whenever necessary to deal with future backlogs. We modified the system so that most cases can be reviewed electronically instead of manually. We also made it so that the regions can work cases that previously could only be worked by the Aerospace Medical Certification Division in Oklahoma.

"We expanded the aviation medical examiner assisted special issuance process that allows the AME to issue waivers for specific medical conditions. We increased it from 20 conditions to 35 conditions'renal cancer, melanoma, bladder cancer, heart attacks, bypass surgery, to name a few. We also actively pursued the EAA and other associations to encourage AMEs to participate in the special issuance process."

New Rules to Reduce Certification Intervals

"We didn't stop there. We started a rulemaking process that will propose to extend the interval for first-class medical certification from six months to one year. For third-class medicals for pilots under 40'from three years to five years. These two interval changes are consistent with the changes that ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] is making. It is estimated that these two changes will reduce annual applications by 75,000 and therefore provide better, quicker service to others."

"Better Than 30 days"

Because medical certification is an issue that affects every pilot, the aviation community is greatly interested in getting speedy results. Blakey pointed out that while the FAA certifies about 450,000 pilots per year, "the goal is to get better than 30 days and maintain it. We're there. But I promise you we're pushing to get better."

Mike Wayda is the Editor of the Federal Air Surgeon's Medical Bulletin. This article was originally published in the 2006-3 issue of the Federal Air Surgeon's Medical Bulletin.