Comparative observations on pilot licencing: Mexico, Canada and the United States
Law Office of Adam Strachn, Knoxville, Tennessee
The Covid-19 pandemic brought an almost immediate halt to all international travel and triggered a mass uptake of remote work for domestic and international business transactions. As companies and organisations sought to continue with business-as-usual to the best of their ability, the world transitioned from very little to almost entirely remote work, with online video conferences replacing in-person meetings. Yet, as with all things, the balance of remote versus in-person work will likely fall somewhere in the middle over the long-term.
As pandemic-related restrictions begin to ease, people are eager to resume domestic and international business travel. And while the major airlines are still the go-to option, individuals are increasingly opting for private general aviation to fulfil their travel needs.,  There is considerably less hassle opting for private general aviation as opposed to flying on one of the commercial airlines’ jumbo jets, where many Covid-19-related restrictions are still in place. Private general aviation also offers the ability to conduct business in areas not traditionally served by larger airports.
Federal Aviation Administration (United States)
In the US the licensure of all pilots is conducted through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). While there are many different types of licence an individual may acquire, the most common – and the most useful – is the Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL).
The regulations governing this specific licence are found in FAR Section 61 (also known as Part 61) and the obligations for earning one’s licence are relatively straightforward. In essence, the requirements are ground school attendance, a minimum of 40 hours of flight training and a check ride (akin to a driver’s test) with an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). Upon successful completion of this programme the individual is licensed to operate a single engine aircraft anywhere in the US.
US to foreign jurisdiction conversion
As interest in private general aviation increases, so shall legal considerations regarding the validity of pilot licences across jurisdictions. Imagine this: a client is considering obtaining their pilot’s licence in order to fly a personal aircraft for business. They will be flying from the US into Canada and Mexico, but will a US pilot’s licence be valid in those countries?
Transport Canada Civil Aviation (Canada)
Flying into Canada is a fairly straightforward process. Information regarding flying in Canadian airspace is available via the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). US PPLs are readily recognised in Canada and the required equipment list is almost identical to that of the US.
The conversion of a US PPL to a Canadian pilot’s licence is also relatively straightforward. Canadian pilot licences are regulated by Transport Canada Civil Aviation and subject to an international agreement called the Implementation Procedures for Licensing Agreement. This agreement allows for the conversion of a US PPL to a Canadian equivalent, and vice versa, for all aeroplane and helicopter categories. This also includes the conversion of any instrument ratings. Pilots with a valid US PPL may read the FAA Advisory Circular 401-001 for specific details and processes for the conversion.
Civil Aviation Federal Agency (Mexico)
Flying into Mexico from the US is also permissible. Again, the AOPA holds information related to Mexico and other countries around the Gulf of Mexico. In essence, the holder of a valid US PPL may enter into and fly within Mexican airspace as long as all necessary paperwork is complete and the necessary equipment is at hand.
Obtaining a Mexican pilot’s licence is a bit trickier. Clear information about the process is lacking. Last year the FAA announced that the Mexican government does not meet the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) safety standards, which subsequently downgraded Mexico from a Category 1 to a Category 2 country. This imposes some limitations on flight operations from Mexico to the US and/or means that 'the civil aviation authority is lacking in one or more areas such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record keeping, inspection procedures, or resolution of safety concerns'.
The ICAO is not a regulatory body; rather, it is an organisation that exists to: 'maintain an administrative and expert bureaucracy supporting these diplomatic interactions, and to research new air transport policy and standardization innovations as directed and endorsed by governments through the ICAO Assembly, or by the ICAO Council which the assembly elects.'
Considering that the standardisation between governments is part of the ICAO, and that the FAA has just downgraded the Federal Civil Aviation Agency (AFAC), it would likely be easier to wait for Category 1 status to be reinstated (hopefully in the first half of 2022), before pursuing licensing of any kind in Mexico in order to avoid any potential issues related to the downgrade. Since a US PPL will allow entry and operations in Mexico in the interim, this should suffice for most flight operations.
Foreign jurisdiction to US conversion
Now, let’s consider the reverse situation: a client with a foreign pilot licence seeks to be licensed in the US. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, Article 14, s 61.75(a): 'A person who holds a foreign pilot license at the private pilot level or higher that was issued by a contracting State to the Convention on International Civil Aviation may apply for and be issued a U.S. private pilot certificate with the appropriate ratings if the foreign pilot license meets the requirements of this section.'
It should be noted that there are currently 193 signatures to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, and it is therefore highly likely that the US will recognise a foreign pilot licence. Of note, Mexico has been signatory of this Convention since 1946. So, as long this hypothetical client meets the requirements in s 61.75 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which are not onerous at all, they will be issued a valid US PPL.
Air travel has come a long way since the Wright brothers first took flight back in 1903. With the advancements in avionics and electronic flight bags such as the Foreflight and Garmin Pilot apps, which may be used on tablets and smartphones, a pilot can now navigate using their iPhone.
International flights in the simplest of general aviation aircraft, such as the venerable Cessna 172 Skyhawk, can be completed safely and efficiently, and at times faster and more directly, than travelling via airlines. Thanks to the efforts of organisations like the FAA, Transport Canada, Mexico’s AFAC and the AOPA, the headache of research and compliance with country-specific regulations has been very much reduced.
 See www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/general-aviation-market-size-worth-36-461-60-million-globally-by-2028-at-4-8-cagr----exclusive-report-by-the-insight-partners-301457918.html accessed 12 April 2022.
 As seen in the ‘Commercial Airline Traffic’ and ‘Business Aviation Traffic’ comparative charts https://airfactsjournal.com/2021/10/general-aviation-trends-in-charts-2021-update accessed 12 April 2022.
 See https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/reference-centre/advisory-circulars/advisory-circular-ac-no-401-001 accessed 12 April 2022.
 See www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/mexico-signs-agreement-aimed-recovering-us-aviation-rating-2021-07-26 accessed 12 April 2022.
 See www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexico-says-could-recover-us-air-safety-rating-first-half-2022-2021-08-31 accessed 12 April 2022.
 See www.ecfr.gov/current/title-14/chapter-I/subchapter-D/part-61/subpart-B/section-61.75 accessed 12 April 2022.
 See www.icao.int/secretariat/legal/List of Parties/Chicago_EN.pdf accessed 12 April 2022.