How Pilots Arrested For Driving Drunk Or High Can Still Fly Without Anyone Ever Knowing

August 6, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

In July, a pilot from Florida was convicted for operating a commercial airplane despite his airman’s certificate having been revoked and his medical certificate being suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on May 7. According to the FAA, Eduardo Aching failed to report that he had been arrested for Driving under the Influence (DUI) — an action that would have required reporting under the law.

Instead, Aching continued to fly, operating an aircraft on at least ten different occasions after his medical certificate was suspended. He also presented an FAA inspector with a falsified medical certificate. 

There are many parts to this story, but perhaps the one that may cause the most confusion is the fact that Aching did not necessarily get into trouble because of the DUI, but rather because he failed to report it.

In today’s piece, we take a look at what the laws and rules are around an airman’s license and what it means if a pilot is accused, arrested, and/or convicted of a DUI.

Self-Reporting Rules And Procedures

An airman’s certificate or license is issued by the FAA, contingent upon a medical examination and subsequent certificate conducted and issued by an Aviation Medical Examiner (designated by the FAA). There are varying classes of medical certificates and the validity of each depends on the class and the pilot’s age, ranging from six months to five years. Once the period has lapsed, the medical needs to be redone for the airman’s certificate to be renewed.

Under the Code of Federal Regulations at 14 C.F.R. § 61.15(e), all pilots, flight instructors, and ground instructors that fall under Part 61 of the code have to send a “notification letter” (a report) to the FAA’s Security and Hazardous Materials Safety Office about any drug- and/or alcohol-related motor vehicle actions (MVAs), within 60 days of the incident.

There are several types of MVAs, including:

  • A conviction for DUI or Driving While Intoxicated/Impaired (DWI), as it relates to alcohol or drug consumption.
  • A conviction for Driving with an Unlawful Blood Alcohol Level.
  • A conviction for operating While Under the Influence (OWUI).
  • Any incident that leads to a driver’s license being cancelled, suspended, or revoked for an alcohol- or drug-related reason.
  • A driver’s license being cancelled, suspended, or revoked for failing or refusing a chemical test (like a breathalyzer analysis or a blood test), even if the driver was not drinking or imbibing drugs.
  • Having a driver’s license application rejected due to an alcohol- or drug-related offense.

A pilot must report any alcohol- and/or drug-related administrative action, regardless of whether it led to a conviction or not. It does not matter if the charges are reversed, dismissed, or pled down later — the administrative incident still has to be reported to the FAA. Pilots are also required to submit these reports even if they are not actively flying when the incident occurs.

The FAA says that the notification must be submitted within 60 days of the effective date of the license being suspended. A second notification is required if the person is then convicted for the crime that led to the suspension, again within 60 days of the conviction date. It is perfectly normal to have to submit two notifications if the suspension leads to a conviction, but the case is usually treated as one under the law — the FAA will likely not increase the penalty for two notifications from the same arrest.

Most aviation experts suggest retaining the legal services of a specialized lawyer as soon as an incident like this takes place, though they also warn that everyone should be wary of attorneys who may say that the FAA notification isn’t necessary because there was no action taken beyond a license being temporarily suspended. 

This is all separate from what happens if a pilot operates a plane while impaired or under the influence, or who has drugs on their person while flying. Further, it does not appear as though holders of an airman’s licenses have to report arrests or convictions for any other crimes.

Outcomes And Penalties

Once a notification is submitted, the FAA conducts a preliminary inquiry to make sure that the report was made within the time frame and that all actions that need to be reported have been.

The FAA encourages a pilot to report an incident even outside the 60-day period, saying that a submission made before the agency itself finds out is “normally considered a mitigating factor when determining sanction.”

If a pilot fails to submit a report but the FAA discovers the record, then a formal investigation is opened. If the person is found guilty, the FAA may deny any application for a certificate, rating, or authorization for up to one year, or suspend/revoke the certificate, rating, or authorization.

The typical sanction of failing to report and being caught is a 30-day suspension of the airman’s license. If the report is made after the 60-day deadline but before the FAA discovers the arrest, the person will likely only be sent a letter of reprimand, and there will likely be no civil penalty or action taken against the license.

For any offense related only to drugs, the FAA is allowed to penalize the airman’s certificate, with revocation being the general course of action (unless the charge was “simple possession of a small amount”).

How The FAA Finds Out

It may come as a surprise to some that the FAA does not have a database that automatically updates periodically with the latest convictions and arrest information (most of which are generally publicly available).

Rather — after an initial check when the person first applies for a license — the FAA partially relies on the aforementioned self-reporting (under particular circumstances) and partially on a “periodic” manual check of the National Driver Registry and state registries for any drug or alcohol driving-related convictions involving pilots. When an individual consents to the medical, they also consent to the FAA requesting information from the registries about that person’s driving record. 

Some say that federal regulators do not conduct frequent-enough criminal background checks on pilots who have already been licensed once, mainly due to a lack of the resources that would be required to do so. It is estimated that the total number of licensed pilots in the U.S. stood at just over 690,000 as of 2020, indicating the mammoth task that regulatory agencies are faced with.

The FAA does conduct random, on-the-spot alcohol and drug tests on pilots, it said. In 2015, the agency caught around one pilot a week (48 in total) for having alcohol above the legal limit and/or illicit drugs in their system during such checks.

What This All Means

Experts say that the FAA operates on a good-faith, honor-based system, expecting that their pilots will display “good moral character” and self-report any violation of the law.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. “I don’t think the public has a clue as to how dangerous the skies actually are in terms of the people flying them around,” said one ex-government official.

An investigation conducted in 2016 by News8 in Texas found that over 80 pilots still had their licenses despite having been arrested and convicted for crimes like sexual assault or abuse of child, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft, domestic battery by strangulation, aggravated stalking, aggravated attempt to elude police, and endangering lives of others while attempting to elude police.

When questioned by the investigative team, the FAA said that in the five years prior it had caught around 67 airline pilots who had falsified their medical forms. Per the report, these were for criminal offenses such as aggravated assault and battery, rape and aggravated sodomy, online solicitation of a minor, and inducing a minor child younger than 18 years of age to engage in sexual performance.

What this boils down to, experts point out, is that a person who has been arrested for driving a motor vehicle while drunk or while on drugs can continue to fly a plane indefinitely, until such time that the FAA conducts a background check and finds the arrest — if they ever do.

One pilot summed up the situation quite succinctly to News8: “This is a problem, but very few people know about it.”