While many states are currently “open for business” to one degree or another, COVID-19 has stubbornly refused to release its hold in some areas. As a result, while progress is being made, we clearly are not “back to normal.”
In light of this, government agencies that relaxed regulatory requirements at the beginning of the crisis, including the FAA, are beginning to extend these accommodations. For example, on April 30, 2020, the FAA issued Special Federal Aviation Regulation 118 (SFAR) to relax certain training, recent experience, testing, and checking requirements. The rule also gave relief to pilot schools that were unable to meet duration and renewal requirements due to the outbreak. Airmen that had training or other requirements that had to be met between March and June were provided an additional three months grace period to come into compliance.
The FAA recently recognized that the relief in the original SFAR was inadequate, and on June 29, 2020, found that there was good cause to amend the rule without public notice or comment. The amended rule, titled Limited Extension of Relief for Certain Persons and Operations During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Public Health Emergency, provides airmen whose training or other requirements expire between June and September 2020 with an additional three months grace period to comply. It is important to note that, while the FAA is expanding the relief in SFAR 118 to a new group of airmen, it has not extended the period of relief provided to the original group of airmen, except in one instance related to medical certification. In other words, airmen whose requirements had to be met between March and June still only have the original three month grace period.
According to the FAA, the amendment to the SFAR is necessary because:
although there are signs of increased aviation activity, many of the challenges that existed when SFAR 118 was first issued remain today. As those airmen that exercised the relief in the SFAR begin to reschedule training and qualification activities, further strain is placed on the training ecosystem for those airmen who are due for events in the upcoming months. In addition, the FAA workforce and its designees have not fully returned to normal activity. As a result, airman qualifications will lapse because persons cannot access training or testing facilities or schedule events in a timely fashion, or because FAA inspectors or designees are unavailable to conduct required tests, checks, or observations. To enable the continuity of aviation operations that are critical to the Nation, the FAA finds it necessary to provide short-term relief from certain training, qualification, duration, and renewal requirements to a new cohort of airmen.
It is difficult to see the future of this SFAR at this point. With some states starting to pull back on reopening, it may not be possible for the training system to accommodate the pent-up demand. As a result, we will all have to keep on the look-out for another extension of SFAR 118 at the end of August.