Air Safety Link
LPA Petitions FAA to Expand PIC Authority

By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor
Air Line Pilot, October 2003, p. 5

On Aug. 12, 2003, ALPA submitted to the FAA a formal Petition for Rulemaking to amend the Federal Aviation Regulations regarding the authority of the pilot-in-command (PIC). The amendment would expand the period of PIC authority from flight time (doors shut to doors open) to the entire flight-duty time.

The purpose of the petition, ALPA said, is "to ensure that the [PIC] has the authority to make all decisions that affect the safety of flight." The amendment proposed by ALPA will not reduce air carrier operational flexibility or increase costs or administrative burdens.

As ALPA pointed out, "The authority of the PIC began in maritime law and dates back more than 2,000 years. The captain of a ship has always been responsible for the safety of the ship, its passengers, and its cargo. With this responsibility goes authority. Therefore, the sea captain was given unquestioned authority and made all decisions regarding the ship’s preparation, operation, its crew, and the voyage."

Moreover, ALPA said, people long ago recognized that, when operating in an environment such as on the ocean, in the air, or in space, a need exists for "a single responsible authority, whether it be called captain, commander, or PIC." This law and tradition, the Association asserted, "provide the foundation and principle on which much of the current aviation law governing the PIC is predicated."

However, in contrast with the broad authority still afforded sea captains, the current FARs give the authority to make decisions about safety of flight only "during flight time." Many safety decisions about a flight, ALPA said, are made during preflight planning and before the flight begins. Preflight decisions regarding fuel, route, maintenance items, and flight security are critical to the safety of flight.

Unfortunately, because these pre-flight decisions occur outside of flight time, "the PIC’s judgment can be questioned and overruled by the company’s managers, station agents, security agents, and other ground personnel," ALPA stressed. "This degradation of the PIC’s authority directly [affects] the pilot’s ability to make safety decisions and may pre-vent fulfillment of the PIC’s responsibility for the safety of the flight." This erosion of PIC authority, ALPA argued, can be halted by amending the FARs to clearly set forth that the authority of the PIC extends to the pre- and post-flight time periods.

The Association specifically addressed the fact that new federal security regulations imposed since Sept. 11, 2001 have placed additional preflight responsibilities on the PIC. The PIC must ensure that the security requirements of both the employer and the appropriate government authorities are met.

"While the pilot is responsible for the security of the flight," ALPA emphasized, "the preflight authority to carry out the responsibility is not clearly delineated. This proposed amendment would clarify and provide the PIC the authority to make all pre- and post-flight decisions that [affect] the safe operation of the flight."

The Association pointed out that the proposed amendment also is needed to conform to recent changes to international standards made by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Amendment 36 to the International Standards, Rules of the Air, went into effect on Nov. 1, 2001.

This amendment changed the definition of "flight crew member" to read: "A licensed crew member charged with duties essential to the operation of an aircraft during a flight duty period [emphasis added]." The earlier definition read, "…during flight time [emphasis added]."

ICAO Annex 6, Part 2 defines "flight duty period" as "The total time from the moment a flight crew member commences duty, immediately subsequent to a rest period and prior to making a flight or series of flights, to the moment the flight crew member is relieved of all duties having completed such flight or a series of flights."

ALPA noted, "The United States did not file any differences to these changes and is obligated to conform to them." "States"—i.e., nations—participating in ICAO must submit formal documents to the organization if they do not intend to abide by ICAO Annexes. The "differences" document must explain exactly which portions of the ICAO international agreements the State will not honor.