Those involved with volunteer flying have likely felt the frustration of limited pilot resources. We all want to be able to complete more flights, but let’s face it, flying is expensive! There’s a limit to the amount any pilot can give. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could defray a pilot’s cost of flying charitable flights? We’re all doing good things here. If pilots didn’t have to pay the fuel bill, think of how much MORE good they could do!
The bad news is, in general, fuel reimbursement for volunteer pilots is a no-no. The FAA is clear on that, and Air Care Alliance has emphasized the importance of VPOs following the FARs. Anything else puts the pilot, their organization, and public benefit flying as a whole in danger.
The good news is, there is a way to reimburse pilots for fuel legally–through fuel reimbursement exemptions. You may have heard about these. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard they are onerous and restrictive. Impossible to get or maintain. Not worth the trouble…
But what exactly is an FAA Exemption? How does an organization go about getting one, and are the requirements really that restrictive? We’ll explain here.
What is an FAA Exemption?
An FAA exemption is permission excusing you from complying with a certain regulation or regulations. The FAA may grant this relief provided the petitioner can demonstrate an equivalent level of safety to the rule from which relief is sought; and demonstrate how the request would benefit the public interest.
In the case of most Volunteer Pilot Organizations (VPOs), relief is typically sought from §61.113(c) of Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, relating to compensation. An exemption from this rule allows organizations to reimburse volunteer pilots for fuel, provided the pilot and organization comply with certain conditions and/or limitations.
Great! Where do I start?
When thinking about petitioning for an exemption, keep in mind you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Several VPO organizations have already petitioned for, and received, exemptions from the FAA. A good place to start is by reviewing the petitions that have already been granted to VPOs. (See links below). If the relief granted is in line with what your organization is seeking, you’re halfway there. Requesting the same exemption another organization has can be as simple as sending an email. Use the granted petition as a model for your own. The FAA does not want to do more work than it needs to. If your petition is in line with precedent, it is easier to get it approved.
If you don’t want what other groups have, or are looking for different relief, you’ll have to do a little more work.
The FAA offers specific guidance on what to include in a petition for exemption and you should consult those carefully before applying. In general, you’ll need to identify the specific sections you seek relief from, the reason for relief, and why the exemption would not adversely affect safety. It would also be prudent to do some research on whether another VPO has previously petitioned for the relief you seek and was subsequently denied. The FAA will have laid out it’s reasoning for denial, which gives you an idea how likely your petition will be to succeed.
Whenever you are requesting a new or expanded exemption, it’s a good idea to consult with an aviation attorney.
Okay, so how do I apply?
Petitions for exemptions may be submitted electronically or by paper; however, The Office of Rulemaking recommends that you submit your request for exemption electronically by using the FDMS Web site www.regulations.gov
You can find specific instructions for that here: https://www.faa.gov/uas/advanced_operations/section_333/how_to_file_a_petition/media/How_to_Send_Your_Petition_for_Exemption_or_Rulemaking.pdf
You should always apply for an exemption well before you need it. It can take up to 120 days to get a response. If you file electronically, you’ll be emailed any updates and are also able to search your docket at regulations.gov.
Exemptions are typically granted for a two year period and you may request to extend a previously granted exemption through this same process. If circumstances haven’t changed, you can simply ask to extend the exemption as written. If circumstances are different, or you are requesting changes, you may need to submit a new petition.
What kind of requirements can I expect?
VPO fuel reimbursement exemptions got their bad reputation for good reason. The initial exemptions granted to VPOs included maintenance restrictions, TBO requirements, and many other aspects that made complying more costly for pilots than simply paying for the fuel. However, over the years, ACA has worked with the FAA to remove some of the more restrictive aspects. Pilots will still have to meet higher criteria to be reimbursed–there’s no way around that–but overall, the requirements have become much more attainable.
Generally, you can expect that a pilot will need to have a minimum of 500 hours, a 2nd class medical, be instrument rated (and current), and get an annual IPC. Pilots will also need to follow certain operating limitations and complete some sort of initial and annual training.
Before you shake your fists at the sky, remember that the conditions and limitations put in place for these exemptions are meant to protect passengers. They are designed to provide a level of safety essentially equivalent to a commercial flight. The FAA’s primary purpose is to protect public safety, not to always make things easier for the pilot.
Exemptions come with requirements for the organization as well. Those include significant record-keeping as well as developing and implementing ground training programs. Don’t let the “training program” piece scare you. Many organizations utilize online courses to meet the training requirements, including Air Care Alliance’s public benefit flying course–something your organization may already require.
These things do involve a certain investment of staff time and someone dedicated to overseeing the program. Depending upon how many pilots participate, this could equate to a few hours of staff time each week. However, with the right systems in place, complying with the exemption does not need to overwhelm the organization.
Is it worth it for my VPO?
Whether or not to seek an exemption depends on the organization and make up of your pilots. It’s unlikely the FAA will budge on the pilot requirements. If the bulk of your pilots aren’t instrument rated, are low-time pilots, or unable to maintain a 2nd Class medical, it may not be worth the effort. You’ll also need to consider whether your organization is capable of managing the administrative piece. Having a staff person or dedicated volunteer to ensure compliance is important to protect your organization.
Finally, note that your organization will need to have 501(c)(3) status to meet the FAA’s definition of a Voluntary Pilot Organization.
Having an exemption may entice more pilots to volunteer or help existing pilots fly more. If that translates to more flights complete for your organization, the hoops to jump through could be well worth the effort. If being able to reimburse pilots for fuel is a must for your organization, getting an exemption is the only way to go.
Congress passed legislation requiring the FAA to permit fuel reimbursement for volunteer pilots in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The FAA’s response was to assert that it was already in compliance with the law through its exemption process. ACA has worked with the FAA to remove some of the most onerous and impractical criteria from FAA Exemptions and made qualifying for reimbursement more attainable for volunteer pilots. We will continue our work on this important issue. In the meantime, we are here to help. If you have general questions about exemptions or need help navigating one you’ve obtained, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.