Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) takes a reporter on a flight above Tulsa in his experimental aircraft.
WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma is trying to relax the medical requirements for private pilots who fly small planes, drawing complaints from Democrats who say is he is going back on a compromise that became law only two months ago.
The Oklahoma Republican, an avid, 81-year-old pilot who has had a quadruple heart bypass, is trying to eliminate a requirement that pilots have a statement from their doctor saying that they don’t have a medical condition that would interfere with their ability to safely operate a plane.
Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has proposed the change as part of House and Senate negotiations on a major defense bill, according to congressional aides familiar with the discussions. The aides spoke on condition they not be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
The defense bill already includes a “pilots’ bill of rights” sponsored by Inhofe — a series of provisions aimed at simplifying the medical approval process and helping pilots who contest enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration.
But a compromise was reached earlier this year on the medical provisions, which were ultimately added to a bill extending the FAA’s policies and programs that was passed by Congress and signed into law in July.
The compromise means nearly 200,000 pilots who fly planes weighing less than 6,000 pounds and with up to six seats no longer must be certified every two years as medically fit to fly by an FAA-approved medical examiner.
Under the compromise system, which the FAA is still implementing, pilots can get a physical from any doctor — not just an FAA-approved medical examiner — and the doctor can simply attest that no prohibitive medical concerns were found.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and other groups whose members include recreational pilots had sought the changes, saying the previous system was overly bureaucratic and expensive, and discouraged pilots from flying.
The U.S. recreational flying industry has shrunk significantly. The number of general aviation pilots declined from 827,000 1984 to 593,000 in 2014. Industry officials say they are trying to encourage interest in flying.
But eliminating even the “moderate safety precaution” of having the doctor sign a statement that the pilot is fit to fly “would leave pilots with the exclusive responsibility for coming to a medical judgment about their own fitness to fly, which we believe would represent an unacceptable risk to the safety of our airspace,” Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a letter this week to defense bill negotiators.
The letter urges them to reject the proposal. “Changes to civil aviation policy have no place in a military policy bill, recently negotiated compromises should not be re-litigated mere weeks after passage into law, and the safety of our airspace is too important to put at risk,” the senators wrote.
Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for Inhofe, declined to comment on the specifics of the pilot medical changes the senator is seeking. “Things change by the hour, and Inhofe has a strong record of trying to find a middle ground that benefits all stakeholders,” she said.
Jim Coon, the pilots association’s top lobbyist, said his group isn’t aware of what proposals have been discussed but supports the medical provisions already in the law.