Why am I bringing this up? Because the language that describes what the FAA does when you submit an application probably hasn’t mattered much to you up to now. But the next time you submit an application to the FAA, you may be surprised, even alarmed, to receive written notification from the FAA that you are under investigation. You may even be required to sign an official-looking form that is meant to prove that you received that notification. I would certainly be asking about what is going on. The reason for the change is simple, and it’s good for pilots. You will now be receiving a written notification of an investigation every time you apply for a certificate, including each time you visit your AME, because of the newly enacted Pilot’s Bill of Rights. Let me explain why this is a good thing.
In early August, the president signed into law the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, which was legislation introduced with the purpose of making changes to the FAA’s enforcement process to help put fairness back into that process. One of the changes made by the law requires that the FAA “provide timely, written notification to an individual who is the subject of an investigation relating to the approval, denial, suspension, modification, or revocation of an airman certificate.” Too often, an FAA inspector or an FAA air traffic controller would seek out a pilot to ask about a flight incident and the pilot would understandably respond, honestly and often with a lot of information that the FAA could use against the pilot. The pilot would not realize or understand that the FAA was investigating his or her conduct as a possible violation of the FAA’s regulations, nor would the pilot understand that there was often no obligation to provide the FAA with the information being requested. So, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights requires that the FAA notify a pilot about an FAA investigation and specifically inform the pilot that the information obtained could be used against him or her, so that the pilot could fairly understand the reason for the FAA’s inquiry and be able to make informed decisions about responding to that inquiry.
The same reasoning holds true for an application being submitted to the FAA. As you have no doubt noticed, when you sign any FAA application form, you are certifying that the information you have provided on the form is true and accurate to the best of your knowledge, and you are agreeing that the information may be used by the FAA to determine whether to issue the certificate or rating to you. The FAA fully expects you to be truthful and accurate and complete with the information that you provide. If you fail in this regard, and the FAA finds out about it, the FAA takes the ultimate sanction against you— revocation of all of the certificates you hold based on charges of intentional falsification. (You may be thinking, “I would never falsify information I’m giving to the FAA on an application”—but making a mistake, even an understandable one, in an answer to an FAA question can result in an FAA accusation of falsification and enforcement action. We often help members of the AOPA Legal Services Plan/Pilot Protection Services where the truthfulness of a statement in the paperwork is at the heart of the issue). Furthermore, providing false information on your application can subject you to criminal penalties, including jail time and hefty civil penalties. So, this new additional step of notifying you that you are under investigation in connection with your application is, in my view, an additional safeguard to remind you of the FAA’s expectation that you have read the questions on the application form, that you understand the reason for the questions, and that you answer each of the questions correctly to the best of your knowledge.
AOPA worked hard to get the Pilot’s Bill of Rights enacted and I think it is a good idea that the law now requires the FAA to give you this notification of what they are doing and the import of their review of the application you are submitting. The FAA has a job to do in getting information to make sure that only qualified pilots hold valid and current certificates, and the FAA relies on us to meet our responsibility to provide complete and accurate information in response to questions on the application which can then help the FAA do its job. So, when you see the notification when you next apply for a certificate or rating, sit up and take notice of how you are answering the questions on the application. Be careful, the questions can change and an answer that you’ve given to a similar question before may now require a different response. For each question, read it completely and then answer fully and truthfully, to the best of your knowledge. For those of you who are members of the AOPA Legal Services Plan/Pilot Protection Services, you can call on us before submitting the application to help you be sure you are answering the questions appropriately.
Did you know that when you apply for an FAA airman certificate or rating or submit an application for a medical certificate that the FAA is “investigating” your qualifications? Most of us don’t think about the FAA application process as an “investigation” but that’s what the FAA statute says: “The Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall issue an airman certificate to an individual when the Administrator finds, after investigation, that the individual is qualified for, and physically able to perform the duties related to, the position to be authorized by the certificate.” So, thinking about it, it makes sense to call the FAA’s review of your qualifications an investigation because the FAA is, after all, checking the information you have provided and examining whether you are entitled to be granted the certificate or rating that you seek. Still, in our aviation environment, the words “investigation by the FAA” seems almost always to imply that there is something wrong and that the FAA is looking into what you did wrong.