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When the FAA comes knockingWhen the FAA comes knocking

Nothing is quite as jolting and dreadful to a pilot as getting an unexpected letter from the FAA. Most pilots know receiving a letter from the FAA isn’t good news. If the FAA believes a pilot has violated one or more of the federal aviation regulations, that pilot will receive a letter of investigation (LOI), by both regular mail and certified or registered mail, advising him he is being investigated for an alleged violation of the FARs. Sometimes, the letter is actually hand-delivered by the aviation safety inspector (ASI), which can be very intimidating and embarrassing.

The LOI will usually say something such as “the FAA is investigating an incident that occurred” and that it was “contrary to federal aviation regulations,” but it will not explain the specific FARs the agency is alleging were violated. To make matters even more confusing for the airman, the FAA inspectors are advised not to list the regulations violated in the LOI since their legal counsel don’t want any specific regulations cited before they’ve gathered all pertinent evidence. Ironically, although the LOI doesn’t actually tell the airman why he’s being investigated, it will invite the recipient to discuss the matter with the ASI, submit a written statement that includes all pertinent facts and details that may have a bearing on the conduct that is under investigation, and provide any evidence as well.

Just knowing the FAA has him in their sights can put tremendous stress on even the coolest of pilots, which may unfortunately compel him to act impulsively and without the assistance of a legal advisor. To add to the pressure is the fact that the LOI purposely tries to imply that if the ASI doesn’t hear from him within 10 days, then the report will be processed without the benefit of the airman’s statement. Also, if the letter happens to be hand-delivered or the ASI calls the pilot, often he feels as if he is required to speak with him and answer questions, even though that’s not the case. Here are some guidelines and tips for dealing with an LOI:

  • No response is actually required.
  • Sending an explanation for an LOI rarely ends well for the airman; anything he says could inadvertently disclose additional information to help the FAA’s case and will be used against the airman, or your school, later.
  • A response should only be sent in certain circumstances, such as mistaken identity, or solid evidence that will clearly prove that erroneous information was the basis for the investigation. Prior to any response, it’s highly recommended the airman get legal advice to ensure that such information will likely force the ASI to close out the investigation.
  • Airmen shouldn’t ignore the LOI; it may compel the ASI to become more aggressive in the investigation. They should instead send an acknowledgement that they’ve received the LOI, noting that they don’t have anything to add at this time; they may also choose to state that they’d be glad to respond to any specific questions or requests in writing that the ASI may have. This will demonstrate courtesy and professionalism, and a cooperative attitude.
  • Before speaking with anyone at the FAA or responding to the LOI, the pilot should contact an aviation attorney who can help prepare a response that may mitigate damage, minimize investigation, and that will avoid providing admissions or other evidence that could later be used against him. This can be costly, but saving an airman’s license may depend on legal intervention.
  • Encourage your staff and students to take advantage of AOPA’s Legal Services Plan. For less than $40 they can have access to virtually unlimited free legal advice; like insurance, members must have the plan in place prior to an incident for it to be covered.

If you have a company manual, you may want to include a section pertaining to this topic, as well as incorporating it into student training. Just like an emergency checklist, knowing where to quickly find the information can minimize a stressful situation. It is important that your staff and students communicate with you immediately upon receipt of an LOI, not only so you are able to assist them, but also so you have more control of the information to ensure you keep the FAA’s scope from potentially honing in on your school.

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