WASHINGTON — What started out as a controversial landing on a closed runway in south Texas has resulted in a legislative victory for Sen. Jim Inhofe, who secured passage last week of a bill to give pilots more legal avenues in disputes with the federal government.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said his bill, called the Pilots' Bill of Rights, “ensures that pilots are, like everyone else, treated in a fair and equitable manner by the justice system.”
The legislation, which was sponsored by two-thirds of the Senate, passed without a roll-call vote on Friday. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House but has not been considered.
Inhofe wrote the bill after his own dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration. Inhofe, a pilot for more than 50 years, was required to take remedial training in 2010 to avoid legal action from the FAA after an incident in Port Isabel, Texas, in October of that year.
Inhofe landed his 1978 Cessna on a runway that was marked closed and was under construction. According to an FAA report, there were construction workers on the runway. Witnesses on the scene, including an air traffic controller, told the FAA that workers scattered to dodge Inhofe's plane, according to recordings obtained by The Smoking Gun website.
Inhofe has repeatedly denied being at fault in the incident. On the Senate floor last month, Inhofe said he didn't see the “X” on the runway denoting its closure and that he had not seen a pilot notification about the runway before flying to the airport.
Inhofe blamed people that didn't like him for generating publicity about the incident and said he could have lost his license because of it. He said he was denied access to information that was going to be used against him in the investigation.
“When I told them that I was cleared to land by the controller, it took me, a U.S. senator, four months to get the voice recording to prove I was right,” he said.
Inhofe's bill would require the FAA to give a pilot under investigation all relevant evidence at least 30 days before a decision to proceed with an enforcement action.
Pilots also would have to be given access to flight service and tower communications provided by government contractors. Inhofe said the information currently can be denied under federal freedom of information requests since contractors are not subject to the law, even though pilots may need the information in an enforcement proceeding.
The bill also would allow for appeals to federal district courts.
Inhofe's bill had drawn bipartisan opposition from the leaders of the Senate committee that oversees the FAA.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, warned in mid-June that the federal government might not have the resources to pursue enforcement actions under the new system.
That, he said, could prevent the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board from preventing unsafe pilots from flying and have “serious safety consequences.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, said she agreed with several provisions of the bill but had concerns about the appeal process to federal courts.
A committee spokesman for Rockefeller said Monday that his concerns were addressed before the bill was passed on Friday. Hutchison also dropped her objections after the bill was changed to retain the National Transportation Safety Board's role in the appeals process.
Inhofe's legislation also requires a review by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing arm, of the FAA's medical certification process for pilots.