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For the record: What’s in the mail?For the record: What’s in the mail?

The clock is ticking on FAA correspondence

Three recent NTSB decisions remind us that pilots aren’t just required to keep a current address on file with the FAA, but that we’re also responsible for continuously monitoring the mailbox for any correspondence that the FAA may be inclined to send us—even when we’re traveling.

Without making these arrangements, pilots run the risk of missing critical deadlines often included in FAA letters, and finding out firsthand that a late response requires more than just a good excuse.

Each of the three unrelated cases began with the FAA taking action to revoke the airman’s certificate. The first involved a mechanic who supposedly refused a drug test, the second a student pilot accused of unauthorized solo flights, and the third an airline transport pilot who was said to have flown without a valid medical certificate. In all these cases, an emergency order of revocation was sent to the airman’s address of record.

Under FAR 61.60, pilots and instructors are required to update their permanent mailing address within 30 days of obtaining a new address, or they may not exercise their certificate’s privileges. Notification must be provided to the FAA in writing to the address stated in the rule; it may also be updated through FAA’s Airmen Certification Online Services. If the mailing address includes a post office box, then the airman’s current residential address must also be provided. Other airmen, like mechanics, have similar obligations under FAR 65.21.

In each case, the FAA sent the airman a copy of the order by FedEx overnight; first class mail; and most important, certified mail. Under the statute governing FAA enforcement actions, the time frame to appeal an order that is sent by certified mail begins to run on the date the order was mailed by the FAA, not when the airman receives it. So, the 10-day window to appeal began as soon as the FAA mailed the certified letter.

None of the airmen appealed the order in time. The mechanic, whose appeal was determined to be two days late, stated that she had been in another state seeking employment opportunities. The student pilot, whose appeal was found to be four days late, argued that he appealed the same day he received the copy sent via first-class mail, suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic delayed delivery of the certified and FedEx copies. The ATP, whose appeal was about three weeks late, attested that he was away from his address of record, but that he filed an appeal as soon as he learned about the FAA letter from the landlord who’d been collecting his mail. An NTSB law judge in each case issued an order rejecting the late appeal, which each airman appealed to the NTSB.

Unfortunately for these airmen, the NTSB strictly adheres to its longstanding precedent that it will not entertain untimely appeals without a showing of good cause for delay. To the NTSB, “Good cause is defined by two criteria, which are factors outside of [the airman’s] control prevented him from knowing or acting upon the [FAA’s] emergency order and once he was aware, he acted diligently to initiate his appeal.”

In each case, the NTSB held that it was “not convinced” that circumstances beyond the airman’s control prevented him or her from knowing about the FAA’s emergency order. The student pilot’s argument that the late appeal was because of COVID-19 delivery delays was rejected as tracking information showed the certified letter was left with an individual at his address a week before the appeal deadline. In the cases of the mechanic and the ATP, the NTSB found that neither had taken sufficient steps to ensure they would receive FAA correspondence while they were out of town, such as having someone check the mail at their address of record or providing the FAA a forwarding address.

The NTSB reached the same conclusion in all three cases: The airman’s failure to monitor receipt of the mail does not establish good cause for delay in filing an appeal. “We have long held that our procedural rules should be strictly applied,” stated the NTSB, citing precedent that “Undue laxity in the enforcement of the board’s procedural rules will hinder our administration of justice in the long view by giving one party an unfair advantage over the other, and by removing the essential element of predictability from board proceedings.”

With their late filed appeals rejected, these airmen lost the opportunity to challenge the FAA’s revocation of their certificates. To help avoid similar consequences, keep your address updated with the FAA and arrange to have your mail checked whenever you’ll be away, stressing the importance of being immediately notified of any FAA mail. Free services like U.S. Postal Service Informed Delivery also can help you monitor incoming mail. No pilot wants an unexpected letter from the FAA, but it’s one you can’t just return to sender.

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The AOPA Legal Services Plan is offered as part of AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services (aopa.org/pps).

Jared Allen

Mr. Allen is AOPA’s Legal Services Plan (LSP) senior staff attorney and is an instrument-rated private pilot. He provides initial consultations to pilots through the LSP when the FAA has contacted them about potential FAR violations. Jared has helped numerous pilots successfully navigate through compliance actions.

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