As some of you may know, the Department of Justice recently issued a Press Release announcing that it had indicted four pilots for lying on their medical applications. In each case, the airman failed to disclose that he was receiving Veterans Administration ("VA") benefits for a medical condition that would likely have either disqualified the airman from receiving a medical certificate, or would have certainly subjected the airman to additional scrutiny and/or testing requirements by the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine.
The airmen were "caught" when the FAA cross-checked its database of airmen holding medical certificates with the VA's disability benefits database. This is reminiscent of the FAA's 2002 Operation Safe Pilot in which it performed a similar cross-check, but with the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") disability database. Operation Safe Pilot resulted in prosecution of forty pilots who were receiving SSA disability benefits for conditions that would have either disqualified the airmen from receiving a medical or would have triggered further inquiry by the FAA.
After Operation Safe Pilot, the FAA revised the application for medical certificate to include language that specifically authorizes it to conduct this type of cross-check with SSA and VA. When an airman signs the medical application, he or she is agreeing that the FAA can perform this type of search.
Since the DOJ Press Release was issued, I have received multiple calls from airmen who believe they may be in a similar situation, but have not yet been "discovered" or received any notice from the FAA. In each call the airman is, perhaps justifiably, concerned regarding his or her liability exposure for criminal prosecution. Fortunately, options, albeit not great options, are available provided the airman is not yet in the FAA's cross-hairs.
Depending upon the circumstances, airmen have at least two options for dealing with the situation:
An airman can contact the FAA via letter and disclose the previously omitted information regarding both the medical condition and the receipt of disability benefits. It is also helpful to provide an explanation for the non-disclosure, to the extent that the airman has a reasonable explanation for failing to disclose the information. This may persuade the FAA that the failure to disclose was not intentional, but merely a misunderstanding etc.; or
The airman can apply for a new medical certificate and disclose the medical condition and receipt of benefits on the application. Then when the airman goes to his or her aviation medical examiner ("AME") for the medical examination the airman can explain the situation to the AME.
In either instance, the airman will want to have all of his or her VA medical/disability records available to provide to the FAA. However, an airman should keep in mind that any information he or she provides to the FAA could be used against the airman in a criminal prosecution. So it is important for the airman to be very careful about what he or she says to the FAA or AME.
Although pursuing one of these two options does not guarantee that the FAA will not prosecute the airman, coming clean and correcting the record before the airman is "caught" may convince the FAA that prosecution is unnecessary. However, even if an airman is not prosecuted, it is quite likely that the FAA will follow its standard playbook and revoke all of the airman's certificates as a sanction for falsifying the airman's medical application(s).
If you find yourself in this situation, please call and I will be happy to help you through the process.
For those of you who have flown into or out of the U.S. in a general aviation aircraft, you know that extra thought and planning are involved in these flights. And while the process may seem daunting to the uninitiated, it really isn't if you pay attention to the necessary details. Here are a couple of the paperwork "gotchas" that can create problems for pilots if they are not considered and addressed prior to a cross border flight:
Aircraft Documents. The aircraft must have a current and valid registration certificate and an airworthiness certificate. If the registered owner of the aircraft is a corporation or a limited liability company, that entity must be an "active" entity. If it isn't, then the aircraft's registration is likely invalid. Operating an aircraft without a valid registration could subject the pilot/operator to both prosecution and civil penalties.
If the aircraft is not owned by the pilot/operator, a copy of a lease, use agreement or other documentation authorizing use of the aircraft by the pilot/operator will be required. If the aircraft was recently purchased and is being operated with a temporary registration pending receipt of the hard-card registration certificate from the FAA, the aircraft may not be operated internationally unless a Declaration of International Operations is filed with the FAA. The FAA will then fax a 30-day Temporary Certificate of Aircraft Registration or "fly wire" permitting flights outside the U.S.
Pilot/Passenger Documents. The pilot will need a valid airman certificate, a valid medical certificate, and although not required for operation in the U.S., depending upon the destination the pilot may also need a restricted radiotelephone operators permit. Also be aware that if the pilot is operating under the provisions of 14 C.F.R. Part 68 ("Basic Med"), very few other countries currently recognize Basic Med in lieu of a valid medical certificate. As a result, for most international destinations the pilot will need to hold at least a third-class medical certificate.
The pilot and each passenger must have a valid U.S. passport or other valid DHS approved travel document. And it is critical that the information on the pilot/passenger documentation matches the information provided to U.S. Customs Border Patrol ("CBP") through its eApis system. If the information does not match, entry into the U.S. could be denied or delayed, and the pilot/operator could be subject to civil penalties.
If you pay attention to the paperwork/document requirements for operating a general aviation aircraft to/from the U.S., you will avoid the turbulence and build-ups that can otherwise complicate cross border flights. For more information on cross border travel requirements, you can review the CBP website or the U.S. State Department website.
A recent NTSB decision highlights the imperative of appealing an emergency order of revocation in a timely manner, and the continuing, near-insurmountable hurdle of trying to prove "good cause" if the appeal deadline is missed. In Administrator v. Muriuki the FAA issued an emergency order revoking the airman's medical certificate. Per 49 C.F.R. § 821.53(a) the airman had 10 days within which to appeal the order. The airman did not file his appeal until 4 days after it was due. However, it is possible for the Board to accept a late-filed appeal if the airman is able to show "good cause" for delay in filing. Unfortunately, the Board rejected the airman's "good cause" argument and rejected the late-filed appeal.
What is noteworthy about this case isn't the fact that the Board is strict about timing requirements for filing appeals. That isn't new. But what is important about this case is how the Board continues to reject legitimate "good cause" arguments asserted by airmen.
In this case, the FAA issued a notice of proposed certificate action ("Notice") in December 2017 with respect to the airman's medical certificate. The emergency order revoking the airman's medical certificate was not issued until April 13, 2018. During the time period from December 2017 through mid-April 2018 the airman was traveling away from his home but had made arrangements for someone to check his mail. However, the person who was supposed to be checking the airman's mail never checked the mail when the FAA issued the emergency order and so the airman was not aware that the order was issued.
Rather, on April 20, 2018 the airman went in to apply for a new medical certificate and was told by the aviation medical examiner ("AME") that he could not issue a medical and the airman should contact the FAA directly for more information. The airman called the the FAA on April 20, April 23, and April 24, and, finally, on April 25, 2018 someone from the FAA told the airman that the FAA had sent him something in the mail, although the individual apparently did not tell the airman exactly what had been sent.
So, the airman then contacted the person who was supposed to be checking his mail who then confirmed to the airman that the emergency order was sent to the airman. The airman retained an attorney that day and, after the attorney contacts the FAA attorney the following day to obtain a copy of the order, the attorney filed an appeal on behalf of the airman on April 27, 2018 - a mere 4 days after it was otherwise due.
In analyzing the case the Board observed that "good cause" is defined by two criteria: (1) factors outside of respondent's control prevented him from knowing or acting upon the emergency order, and (2) once he was aware, he acted diligently to initiate his appeal. Based upon the facts, the Board believed that the airman's arrangements for having his mail checked were inadequate because the airman did not explain how often his mail was being checked and admitted that during the week when the emergency order was issued the mail was not checked at all.
It was also unhappy with the fact that the airman followed the AME's instructions and attempted to contact the FAA to find out what was going on, rather than going back and checking his mail. According to the Board, the airman also could have contacted the FAA investigator handling the case and he should have done more to assure that the mail was checked and he was notified if/when something from the FAA was received. Thus, it concluded that it was not convinced circumstances beyond the airman’s control prevented him from knowing about the emergency order.
And even if that weren't the case, the Board went on to find that the airman's actions after the AME refused to issue him a medical did not show diligence. The Board faulted the airman for only trying to call the FAA and waiting 5 days before going back to have his mail checked. (Of course this ignores the fact that it took the airman 5 days to get an answer out of the FAA, and an incomplete answer at that).
At the end of the day, this case makes clear, yet again, that you can expect the Board to be almost completely unforgiving if you file an appeal late. Although you may request that the Board accept the late-appeal based upon "good cause", please realize that the burden of proving "good cause" is nearly insurmountable.
So, if you are the subject of an FAA investigation, make sure you check your mail every day. If you can't, have someone you trust check it for you. And if you receive something from the FAA, don't ignore it. Open it immediately. The time for you to defend and protect your rights may already be ticking. And if you do receive an order, emergency or otherwise, from the FAA, do not delay in taking action. It is much better to argue the merits of an FAA decision rather than whether you met the timing requirements for an appeal of the FAA's decision.
It isn’t uncommon in aircraft purchase agreements to see language stating the parties are agreeing that the aircraft is being purchased “as-is” or “as-is, where-is.” Oftentimes the agreement will go on to also say that the seller is not making, nor is the buyer relying upon, any representations or warranties regarding the condition of the aircraft. And it may also specifically state that the buyer is only relying upon its own investigation and evaluation of the aircraft. But what does this really mean?
Well, from the seller’s perspective, the seller wants to sell the aircraft without having to worry that the buyer will claim at a later time that the aircraft has a problem for which the seller is responsible. So, the seller does not want to represent that the aircraft is in any particular condition (e.g. airworthy). When the deal closes, the aircraft is sold to the seller in its existing condition without any promises by the seller about that condition.
Here is an example of how this works: If the first annual inspection of the aircraft after the sale reveals that the aircraft is not in compliance with an airworthiness directive (“AD”) that was applicable to the aircraft at the time of the sale, the buyer could claim that the aircraft was not airworthy at the time of the sale and demand that the seller pay the cost of complying with the AD. But if the purchase agreement has “as is” language, then the chances of the buyer being able to actually force the seller to pay are low.
Not only does this “as-is” language protect the seller, but it also protects other parties involved in the sale transaction such as seller’s aircraft broker. A recent case provides a nice explanation of the legal basis for this result.
Red River Aircraft Leasing, LLC v. Jetbrokers, Inc. involved the sale of a Socata TBM 700 where the aircraft owner/seller was represented by an aircraft broker. The buyer and seller entered into an aircraft purchase agreement that included not only “as-is, where-is” language, but it also provided that the buyer was accepting the aircraft solely based upon buyer’s own investigation of the aircraft.
During the buyer’s pre-purchase inspection of the aircraft, the buyer discovered certain damage to the aircraft. However, the buyer accepted delivery of the aircraft in spite of the damage based upon alleged representations by the broker that the damage was repairable. After closing the buyer learned that certain parts were not repairable. Rather than sue the aircraft seller, presumably because the buyer recognized the legal impact of the “as-is” language in the purchase agreement with the seller, the buyer instead sued the aircraft broker alleging that the broker negligently misrepresented the aircraft.
In order to succeed on a claim of negligent misrepresentation under Texas law (the law applicable to the transaction), the buyer was required to show (1) a representation made by the broker; (2) the representation conveyed false information to buyer; (3) the broker did not exercise reasonable care or competence in obtaining or communicating the information; and (4) the buyer suffers pecuniary loss by justifiably relying on the representation.
In response to the buyer’s claim, the broker argued that the “as-is” language in the purchase agreement waived the buyer’s right to be able to prove that it justifiably relied upon any alleged representations by the broker. The buyer primarily argued that the purchase agreement language did not apply because the broker was not a party to the agreement. But the Court disagreed with the buyer.
The Court found that
the purchase agreement contains clear language evincing Red River's intent to be bound by a pledge to rely solely on its own investigation. And, because it appears that the parties transacted at arm's length and were of relatively equal bargaining power and sophistication, the court concludes that the language in the purchase agreement conclusively negates the reliance element of Red River's negligent misrepresentation claim.
So, even though the broker was not a party to the purchase agreement, the Court still held that the buyer was bound by the statements/obligations to which the buyer agreed in the purchase agreement, even with respect to third-parties. As a result, the Court granted the broker’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the buyer’s claims against it.
“As-is” language will continue to be common in aircraft purchase agreements. Aircraft sellers and those working with them will certainly want to include and enjoy the benefit from this language. Conversely, aircraft buyers need to be aware of the scope and impact of “as-is” disclaimer language in an aircraft purchase agreement. If a buyer is unhappy with the condition of the purchased aircraft, the presence of this language in the purchase agreement will significantly limit the buyer’s remedies and recourse.
I am frequently asked by pilots whether an employer's disclosure of certain documents is properly within the scope of a request for documents under the Pilot Records Improvement Act ("PRIA"). Answering the question usually requires analyzing whether the document being disclosed relates to the individual's "performance as a pilot." However, based upon a recent Legal Interpretation issued by the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel, it appears that the scope of a PRIA request casts a bigger net.
The Interpretation initially noted that "the separate provisions of the PRIA work in tandem to provide a complete record of potential pilot employment issues and to capture instances relating to an individual's performance as a pilot that do not fall into one of the provided statutory categories." It then went on to discuss how these provisions overlap.
With respect to whether a document relates to an individual's performance as a pilot, the Interpretation stated "to the extent that a pilot's behavior directly disrupts safe aircraft operations, those records should be included in accordance with the 'catch-all' provision" of § 44703(h)(l)(B)(ii). Next it noted that § 44703(h)(l)(B)(i) requires disclosure of documents an air carrier must maintain under 14 C.F.R. § 121.683 (records of each action taken concerning the release from employment or physical or professional disqualification of any flight crewmember).
The Interpretation then confirmed that the records maintained under § 121.683 are not limited to those records relating to an individual's performance as a pilot. Rather, it stated "[p]ilot infractions not related to pilot performance that would rise to a level grave enough to cause an air carrier to release a pilot from employment would be captured by this recordkeeping requirement, and a hiring air carrier would be required to request and receive those records."
Based upon this Interpretation, it appears the scope of documents an air carrier must produce in response to a PRIA request potentially includes more than just documents directly relating to the individual's performance as a pilot. As a result, if you are a pilot applying for a position with an air carrier and you are concerned about what your previous or current employer may or may not disclose, I recommend that you request a copy of your employment file BEFORE you apply to the air carrier. That way you will know what is in your file and potentially subject to disclosure.
But keep in mind that if you disagree with what is in your file or what the employer may be disclosing, any recourse you may have against your employer is likely governed by applicable employment laws. As the Interpretation states, "PRIA is not a means for the FAA to arbitrate employment disputes."
If you have additional questions regarding PRIA, you should review FAA Advisory Circular 120-68G. And, as always, if you have additional questions, I'm happy to help.