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Understanding the New Pilot Records Database

Here’s what’s changing—and how those changes can help put the right people in business jet cockpits.

Business jets require extensive recordkeeping. The most obvious examples are flight records and records about inspections, maintenance, and alterations to the aircraft. However, some of the most important aviation records have nothing to do with the aircraft per se. Pilot records—including records of their flights and landings, ratings, training, currency, and medical certificates—demonstrate that they are (or are not) qualified to fly.

FAA regulations obligate pilots to maintain a log of “training time and aeronautical experience.” They need not log in every flight, just enough of them to establish that they meet minimum requirements for certificates, type ratings, and the like. But the FAA also requires air carriers, including Part 135 operators, to keep performance and safety records of currently and previously employed pilots pursuant to the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996. 

The most important reason for the FAA to mandate the retention, availability, and review of such records is that they can help employers determine whether a pilot should be hired or retained. Under the 1996 Act, commercial operators must obtain and review certain records from pilots and their previous employers and review them when hiring pilots. In the absence of a central database, the records must be obtained from the prior employers and pilots themselves. Further, the Act omits many records that employers of pilots should review. As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted after two people died in a flight ditching off the Bahamas in 2003 that was blamed on pilot error, records of flight-check failures and rechecks—in addition to ratings, certifications, and other records covered by the 1996 Act—“would be beneficial for a potential employer to review and evaluate.” 

Unfortunately, it took another disaster to motivate Congress to act. In 2009, 50 people perished in the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near New York’s Buffalo Niagara Airport. After the NTSB reported that the captain of Flight 3407 had failed various check flights and tests over the years, Congress (spurred on by surviving family members) passed legislation requiring the FAA to create a Pilot Records Database (PRD) where all relevant information could be uploaded, retained, and made available to operators hiring pilots.

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Despite the importance of the matter, however, the FAA did not issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the PRD until 2020. The 200-page proposed rule was greeted with numerous comments from the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and hundreds of others. The FAA addressed some but not all of these comments in the final rule it issued in May 2021. 

The PRD itself has been around for some time, and the FAA has been uploading information to it, as have some pilot employers voluntarily. Going forward, the new regulations require many pilot employers to retain and report on the PRD an expanded list of past and future pilot records and information. In addition to certificates, ratings, and the like, this includes precisely the kind of data that might indicate pilot problems: records of accidents, incidents, and enforcement actions, “summaries of unsatisfactory pilot applications for new certificates or ratings,” “final disciplinary action records,” records regarding termination of employment, and drug and alcohol records. The expanded PRD and accompanying regulatory requirements are being phased in over time, with the transition scheduled to be complete by Sept. 9, 2024. 

There are hopes that the availability of more detailed information to employers hiring pilots will make flying safer, not only because more relevant information will be available for employers to review, but also because the new regulations require many commercial operators (including airlines, Part 135 charter operators, Subpart K fractional programs, and certain air tour operators) to review the records before making a hiring decision. 

The records on the PRD are not, however, generally available to the public, and pilots must consent to their disclosure to prospective employers and confirm that the records for the last five years are complete and accurate. Note that the purpose of the PRD and new regulations is to make pilot employers fully informed; it does not prohibit the employment of pilots who technically satisfy applicable requirements. However, employers required to review the records should not be able to hire pilots who fail to consent to making them available for review.

Though generally targeted at commercial operators, the new regulations will also have a significant impact on business aviation. First, they extend reporting requirements to some Part 91 operators, among others. Part 91 flight departments operating two or more aircraft requiring a type rating and/or a turbine helicopter must retain records of pilot training, drug and alcohol testing, disciplinary actions, and other matters for five years.

Keeping records is one thing; reporting them is something else. In response to comments on the NPRM, the FAA decided that most records that Part 91 flight departments are required to keep need not be posted on the PRD as they are created, but the employers must be prepared to report the records within 14 days of a request. Still, the requirement that the records be retained for five years will arguably be burdensome for many small operators. Further, records of disciplinary actions resulting in a suspension from flying or loss of employment because of poor performance or disqualification must be reported on the PRD within 30 days. But unlike commercial operators (including Subpart K fractional programs), Part 91 operators, even those subject to recordkeeping rules, are not required to review such records when hiring pilots.

Weeding out incompetent pilots is potentially a matter of life and death, so the PRD is welcome. This doesn’t mean it’s free of issues, however. The NBAA, for example, raised concerns about the inclusion of check pilot comments from training and checking events in documents to be filed on the PRD—information that will remain on the PRD until the death of the pilot. Further, though the airlines may benefit from better pilot information, business jet owners will benefit only if they consult the same records the airlines are required to review.

Ironically, though, the public availability of bad (or bad-seeming) information about pilots may discourage the creation of useful data in the first place. In addition to making some pilots more nervous when undergoing training (which may cause them to seem less competent than they are), check pilots may be less willing to write a disparaging comment about a pilot’s performance on a check flight knowing that it will be included in the pilot’s record on the PRD. Finally, exactly what information is required is ambiguous in some cases and could lead to legal issues regarding disclosure.

Last June, the FAA published a 136-page Advisory Circular on the PRD, and a Resource Guide regarding the PRD is available to NBAA members on its website.