OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – When it comes to clearing pilots for takeoff, the Federal Aviation Administration uses regular medical exams to make sure they’re fit to fly. But the process may not be fair for everyone in the cockpit.
Every time Jessica Zacharias starts the engine of a plane, she’s fulfilling a childhood dream.
“I remember in grade 3 creating a poster showing me and what my career goal was for the future and I said commercial airline pilot,” Zacharias said.
Zacharias wound up with a tech career and a pilot’s license on the side. She flies for fun, and sometimes ferries planes for other owners, and even gives flying lessons.
All of it requires her to update her airman’s medical certificate annually.
“You show up to a local doctor who is certified to give aviation medicals,” Zacharias explained. “You go there and they give you a very basic medical including vision tests, hearing tests, and then they do a lot of other things that a normal medical would do, in terms of blood pressure, listen to you breathe, heart rate.”
And that’s how it went, every year since 2001. Then it got complicated.
“This time around I got a letter in the springtime saying I wasn’t approved as a normal medical,” Zacharias recalled.
In 2013, Zacharias reported she was transitioning from male to female.
The FAA eventually renewed her medical certificate, after she provided additional information. But now they were saying they would require the extra information every time.
“I had to do an additional psych evaluation and I also needed to get an additional letter from my doctor, not only describing what was being prescribed, but also the prognosis of what were my plans for the future as well, and very detailed information,” Zacharias said.
Ilona Turner is the legal director for the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center.
“I think this is incredibly unfair,” Turner said. “The FAA is imposing these requirements on transgender pilots alone, that they don’t impose on anybody else, due to an absurd and incredibly out of date understanding of what it means to be transgender.”
The center helped another transgender pilot actually change FAA policy in 2012. Yet now, Turner said, this is happening to almost all transgender pilots anyway.
“Jessica was told that being transgender means that she’s inherently unstable, and that kind of attitude is something that was intended to be stamped out by the 2012 policy. And the fact that the folks at the FAA are still repeating, that is very troubling,” Turner said.
KPIX 5 asked the FAA for an on-camera interview several times, but they said no.
They did send a statement, which said, “Once a transgender pilot is determined to be stable following their gender transition, they may be issued an unrestricted medical certificate…We are in the process of clarifying our guidance in our aviation medical examiners guide.”
“Pretty frustrated and upset because. It was just kind of this blanket, ‘You need to provide more information,’ and no real reason why. Just that’s the way it is,” Zacharias said.
The FAA did tell KPIX 5 that they are updating their wording to replace the term “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria,” the term used by the American Psychiatric Association and many transgender groups.