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Understanding The FAA's New Aircraft Re-Registration And Renewal Requirements



On July 20, 2010 the FAA published a Final Rule amending the FAA's regulations regarding aircraft registration. As a result, if you own an aircraft that is registered with the FAA's Aircraft Registry (the "Registry") you are going to have to renew the registration for your aircraft.

Background

The Registry is responsible for developing and maintaining the system of registration for United States civil aircraft. One of the Registry's primary responsibilities is to maintain an electronic database for all U.S. registered aircraft. The database identifies each registered aircraft by its registration number (N- number), its complete description, and the name and address of its registered owner.

According to the FAA, "approximately one-third of the 357,000 registered aircraft records it maintains are inaccurate and that many aircraft associated with those records are likely ineligible for United States registration." Although the current regulations require aircraft owners to report the sale of an aircraft, the scrapping or destruction of an aircraft, or a change in the aircraft owner's mailing address, apparently many aircraft owners have not complied with these requirements. As a result, the FAA has implemented its Final Rule to improve the currency and accuracy of the Registry's database.

The Final Rule requires re-registration of all U.S. civil aircraft over a 3 year period in order to update the Registry's database and to enable the Registry to cancel the registrations of those aircraft that are not re-registered. Thereafter, aircraft owners will need to renew their aircraft registrations every 3 years.

The Re-Registration/Renewal Process

Under the Final Rule, aircraft registrations will now be limited to a 3-year period. At the end of each 3-year interval, an aircraft's registration will expire and the aircraft will need to be re-registered. This rule establishes the expiration of registration for all aircraft registered before October 1, 2010, and provides for the re- registration of all aircraft over a 3-year period according a schedule contained in the rule.

For aircraft registered on or after October 1, 2010, the aircraft registration's expiration date will be printed on the registration certificate and will be 3 years from the last day of the month in which registration or re-registration occurred. Once renewed, an aircraft's registration will expire 3 years from the previous expiration date. Replacement registration certificates issued on or after October 1, 2010, will display the same expiration date that was shown on the replaced registration certificate. If the replaced registration certificate did not display an expiration date, the replacement certificate will display an expiration date from the above-schedule based on the month of issue of the replaced registration certificate.

The FAA will issue replacement certificates after an address update, an N-number change, or when a certificate is reported as lost or mutilated. However, it is important to note that a replacement registration certificate will not constitute re-registration or renewal. Similarly, the replacement certificate will not change the registration expiration date applicable to the aircraft at the time the replacement registration certificate is issued.

When an aircraft's registration is approaching expiration, the Registry will send an aircraft owner two reminder notices. The first reminder notice will be sent 180 days before an aircraft's registration is scheduled to expire. This notice will identify the aircraft, its expiration date, and the 3-month filing window during which a registration or renewal application should be submitted. It will also provide instructions for completing the registration or renewal process.

In order to receive a new registration certificate before the old certificate expires, an aircraft owner will need to file the re-registration or renewal application within the assigned window. However, once an aircraft has completed re-registration and is approaching a required renewal, the aircraft owner may submit the required renewal information as soon as the first reminder notice is received.

The Registry will send a second reminder notice at the end of the 3-month filing window if the aircraft owner has not yet re-registered or renewed the aircraft's registration. The 3- month filing window will close 2 months prior to the scheduled expiration date for the aircraft's registration to allow the Registry sufficient time to process the application and mail the new certificate. If an aircraft owner files an applications after the filing window has closed, the application will still be processed; however, the new certificate may not arrive until after the current certificate has expired.

To avoid confusion between the normal registration process and the re-registration process, the Aircraft Registration Application, AC Form 8050-1, will not be used for re-registration. The Registry has created a separate application form that will be available online, here. Aircraft owners should be aware that the re-registration/renewal application does not grant any temporary authority for operation of an aircraft, unlike that provided by retaining the pink copy of Form 8050-1. As a result, if a re-registration/renewal application is filed late and a new registration certificate is not received by the time the current registration certificate expires, the aircraft owner would not be able to operate the aircraft between the time when the current certificate expires and when the new certificate is received.

The Final Rule provides for both online re-registration and renewal when no changes are required. However, if changes to the registration are required (e.g. address change, etc.), then the re-registration/renewal application may not be submitted online and must be mailed to the Registry. According to the Final Rule, the Registry will post information on its website identifying aircraft as they move through the various stages of re-registration and renewal so aircraft owners and other interested parties can track the process.

Aircraft owners will need to pay $5.00 to re-register their aircraft and then another $5.00 each time the aircraft's registration is renewed. (Although this doesn't seem like a lot of money, unfortunately the registration and administrative fees may increase over time, depending upon whether the latest version of the FAA reauthorization bill passes. Under that bill, the FAA would be required to increase fees to $130 for initial registration and $45 for renewals.)

Consequences For Failure To Re-Register/Renew

If an aircraft owner fails to re-register or renew an aircraft's registration, the registration will not end immediately. Rather, the Registry will wait 30 days to ensure that any late filed requests from the aircraft owner have been processed. In the absence of such requests, and assuming the Registry has a good address on file for the aircraft owner, the Registry will then send a letter to the aircraft owner providing notice of the pending cancellation of the aircraft's registration. The aircraft owner will then have 60 days within which to reserve the N-number or register the aircraft. If the Registry does not receive a reply within 60 days, the aircraft's registration will then be cancelled. If the Registry does not have a good address for the aircraft owner, cancellation of the aircraft's registration will be scheduled for no sooner than 90 days from the date of expiration. Once an aircraft's registration is cancelled, the N-number will be unavailable for assignment for a period of 5 years.

Conclusion

The Final Rule is effective October 1, 2010. Thus, all aircraft owners will need to comply. How can you minimize the hassle associated with the Final Rule? First, since the re-registration notice will be sent to the address on file with the Registry, verify now that your address in the Registry is correct. If you need to update the information, you can do that directly with the Registry or through an aviation attorney. Second, submit your application as early as possible once you receive your first reminder notice to allow the Registry time to process and mail your new registration.

If you follow these steps, hopefully the re-registration/renewal process will be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. And, as always, if you have problems contact an aviation attorney for help.

D.C. Circuit Affirms NTSB's Rejection Of EAJA Fees When FAA Dismisses Its Complaint Before A Hearing



In a recent decision, Turner and Coonan v. National Transportation Safety Board, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the NTSB's refusal to allow two airmen to recover under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") when the FAA dismissed its complaints before the cases can be heard by an NTSB administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The case began when the FAA suspended the airmen's airline transport certificates for their alleged operation of an aircraft that was in an unairworthy condition in violation of FAR 91.7(a). The airmen appealed the suspensions and their cases were assigned to the same ALJ who scheduled hearings for June 2008.

In April 2008 the ALJ granted motions to continue the cases and re-scheduled the hearings for August. However, after the continuance was granted, the FAA withdrew the complaints against the airmen, stating only: "The Administrator hereby withdraws its [sic] complaint in this matter." The ALJ then terminated the proceedings against the pilots with an short order that, unfortunately, did not specify whether the termination was with or without prejudice. The airmen then applied for an award of attorney's fees and expenses under EAJA.

The Equal Access to Justice Act

The EAJA is found at 5 U.S.C. 504 and is implemented in 49 CFR 826. According to 49 CFR 826.1, "The Equal Access to Justice Act, 5 U.S.C. 504 (the Act), provides for the award of attorney fees and other expenses to eligible individuals and entities who are parties to certain administrative proceedings (adversary adjudications) before the National Transportation Safety Board (Board). An eligible party may receive an award when it prevails over the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), unless the Government agency's position in the proceeding was substantially justified or special circumstances make an award unjust." In order to determine whether EAJA fees are available, the key inquiries for an "applicant" (a certificate holder or target of a civil penalty action who is applying for an award of fees) are: (1) Is the Applicant a "prevailing party"? (2) Was the Applicant involved in an "adversary adjudication"? (3) Was the FAA’s position "substantially justified"? and (4) Were the fees actually "incurred" by the Applicant?

The Case Before The ALJ And The Board

The ALJ granted the airmen's EAJA requests finding that the airmen were prevailing parties as a result of the FAA's total withdrawal of all of the charges against the airmen. He also determined that the FAA was not substantially justified because it had "proceeded on a weak and tenuous basis with a flawed investigation bereft of any meaningful evidence." The FAA then appealed the decision to the full Board who reversed the ALJ's award. The Board concluded that the airmen did not satisfy the prevailing party standard because the airmen did not receive an enforceable judgment on the merits of their case, nor did they obtain a court-ordered consent decree that resulted in a change in the legal relationship between the airmen and the FAA.

Specifically, the Board found that the airmen did not prevail on any portion of the merits of the case because the FAA withdrew the charges before the ALJ could hold a hearing. It further noted that the ALJ's order dismissing the case merely accepted the FAA's withdrawal of the charges against the airmen and was not the same as a court-supervised consent decree. Finally, the Board observed that the ALJ did not dismiss the case with prejudice or in any way alter the relationship between the FAA and the airmen. The Board then concluded that "[w]e believe ourselves compelled to find that the Administrator’s withdrawal of the complaint does not confer prevailing party status on applicants under the EAJA."

The Court Of Appeals Affirms

On appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the airmen argued that they were, in fact, the prevailing parties and entitled to the EAJA award granted by the ALJ. However, the Court concurred with the Board and concluded that the airmen were not prevailing parties. The Court found that the ALJ dismissed the cases without prejudice (meaning that the withdrawal did not prevent the FAA from trying to pursue its cases against the airmen at a later time). As a result, the Court held that the airmen did not receive any sort of "judicial relief." According to the Court, when the FAA unilaterally withdrew its complaints, the FAA ended its adversarial relationship with the airmen and the airmen were left in the same position they were in before the enforcement actions began.

Conclusion

In my opinion, this case is bad law. It places procedure before substance and is contrary to the legislative intent behind EAJA. Rather than deterring frivolous and unsubstantiated litigation by the FAA, the Court's decision certainly makes it more difficult to ensure that the FAA is justified in pursuing its cases. The decision also ignores the realities of litigation. To say that the airmen were simply in the same positions after withdrawal as they were before initiation of the action overlooks the time and expense necessarily incurred by the airmen in defending themselves in the case.

EAJA was enacted to allow recovery of those attorney's fees and expenses. Unfortunately, both the Board and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals have significantly impaired EAJA's deterrent effect, for now.

Compliance With The Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program Can Protect An Air Carrier Employee's Certificate



© June, 2010 All rights reserved.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated an NTSB decision in which the Board refused to allow the employee of an air carrier to assert compliance with the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program ("VDRP") as an affirmative defense to an FAA order of suspension. As a result, employees of air carriers and other applicable certificate holders, including mechanics, will have the opportunity to prove compliance with the VDRP to avoid civil penalties or other sanctions in an enforcement action.

The VDRP

Under FAA Advisory Circular AC 00-58A, Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program, the VDRP provides a waiver of enforcement action to certificate holders, including those holding certificates issued under FAR Parts 21, 119, 121, 125, 129, 133, 135, 137, 141, 142, 145, 147, Production Approval Holders (“PAH”) and for program managers of qualified fractional ownership programs operating under Part 91K, when the certificate holder meets the requirements of the VDRP. Generally, the certificate holder must detect a violation before the FAA, promptly disclose the violation to the FAA after discovery, and then take prompt corrective action to ensure that the same or similar violation does not recur.

The VDRP also applies to individual airmen and agents of the certificate holder if the following occurs:
  1. The apparent violation involves a deficiency of the certificate holder’s practices or procedures that causes the certificate holder to be in violation of a covered violation of an FAA regulation;

  2. The airman or other agent of the certificate holder, while acting on behalf of the certificate holder, inadvertently violates the FAA’s regulations as a direct result of a deficiency of the certificate holder that causes the certificate holder to be in violation of the regulations. (The VDRP does not apply to the airman or other agent when his or her apparent violation is the result of actions unrelated to the certificate holder’s deficiency);

  3. The airman or other agent immediately makes the report of his or her apparent violation to the certificate holder; and

  4. The certificate holder immediately notifies the FAA of both the airman or other agent’s apparent violation and the apparent deficiency in its practice or procedures.

The Case

In Moshea v. NTSB, an air carrier with whom the airman was employed voluntary disclosed the airman's failure to make certain required maintenance logbook entries pursuant to the VDRP and the FAA concluded that the air carrier and a number of its employees would receive no penalty. However, the FAA subsequently issued an order suspending the airman's airline transport pilot certificate for 60 days based upon alleged violations of FARs 91.7(a) (aircraft must be in airworthy condition for operation), 135.65(b) (requiring pilot to enter any mechanical irregularities into aircraft logs), and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless).

The NTSB Denies The Airman's VDRP Affirmative Defense

The airman appealed the suspension to the NTSB. At the hearing before the administrative law judge ("ALJ") the airman attempted to raise an affirmative defense based on his compliance with the VDRP. However, the ALJ refused to allow the airman to admit evidence bearing on his compliance with the program. The ALJ concluded that the NTSB lacked the jurisdiction to review the discretion as to how the FAA implements the VDRP (i.e. who the FAA lets off the hook and who the FAA decides to go after). As a result, the ALJ upheld the airman's suspension (although the ALJ did reduce it from 60 to 50 days).

The airman appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board. However, the Board agreed with the ALJ. The Board ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the airman's affirmative defense and it affirmed his suspension. The airman then appealed the Board's decision to the United States Court of Appeals-D.C. Circuit.

The Court of Appeals Reverses The NTSB

On appeal, the airman argued that he should have been able to offer evidence to support his affirmative defense that he complied with the VDRP as an employee of the air carrier certificate holder. However, the FAA and the NTSB argued that the VDRP was unavailable to the airman because it purportedly "does not relate to the sanctions to be imposed," as required by 49 U.S.C. § 44709(d)(3), even though the VDRP provides that no sanctions will be imposed in cases of voluntary disclosure.

The Court rejected what the Court characterized as the FAA's/NTSB's attempt to "evade" the VDRP. The Court stated that when the VDRP says no sanction will be imposed in a case of voluntary disclosure it is "quite obviously 'related to sanctions'" and, as a result, the Board's analysis was unreasonable and contrary to the statute. The Court also found that the NTSB's decision was inconsistent with its handling of a prior case, Administrator v. Liotta, in which the Board allowed an employee of an air carrier to assert an affirmative defense based on the VDRP. According to the Court, this failure to follow precedent without an explanation was arbitrary and capricious and provided an independent basis for vacating the NTSB's decision.

The Court concluded that the NTSB did have jurisdiction to decide whether the FAA's suspension of the airman's certificate was in compliance with the VDRP. It then vacated the NTSB's decision and remanded the case to allow the airman to offer evidence of compliance in support of his affirmative defense.

Conclusions

It is nice to see the Court requiring both the FAA and NTSB to comply with their policies and rules. Keep in mind that this decision applies to all airmen employed by certificate holders, including mechanics. Mechanics and the certificate holders with whom they are employed should take advantage of the VDRP. If the FAA pursues enforcement action against an individual mechanic when the mechanic and his or her employer have complied with the VDRP, the mechanic should be able to assert compliance with the VDRP as an affirmative defense to defeat the FAA's claims.

Of course, mechanics should file their individual ASRS/NASA Forms in addition to compliance with the VDRP. That way, if the FAA/NTSB determines that the mechanic or its employer did not comply with the VDRP, the mechanic may still be able to avoid sanction if he or she has filed the ASRS/NASA form and meets the requirements of that program. You can download the mechanic ASRS/NASA form or file it online here.

4th Circuit Court Of Appeals Affirms NTSB's "Congested Area" Determination


In my article, Identification Of A "Congested Area" Under FAR § 91.119: Hindsight Is 20/20, I discussed an NTSB decision, Administrator v. Folk, in which the primary issue was whether the airmen's low-level flights occurred over a "congested area" as referenced in FAR § 91.119. In a recent unpublished decision, Folk v. Sturgell, the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit has affirmed the NTSB's determination that the area in question was in fact a "congested area."

The Case

In the Folk case, the FAA alleged that the airmen had both engaged in agricultural aircraft operations in violation of 14 C.F.R. §§ 137.51(b)(1) through (3)2 ( agricultural operations over congested areas); 91.119 (minimum safe altitudes); and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). One of the main disputes in the case was whether the area over which the airmen had flown was a "congested area." At the hearing, the FAA argued that its case-by-case analysis of the facts and circumstances supported the conclusion that the area was indeed a "congested area." One of the airmen's arguments in response to the FAA's position was that the logical extension of the FAA's position that congested area determinations are made on a case-by-case basis is that nobody can know whether or not an area is congested until after their case has been decided.

During the hearing, the FAA inspector who investigated the allegations regarding the airmen testified that "if an operator conducts an application in an area the FAA might later determine to be a congested area, the operator ignores that potentiality at his or her peril." The inspector went on to say that he had warned the airmen that the area around their farm could be considered a congested area. When the airmen requested a definition of "congested area," the inspector told them there was no definition, and referred the airmen to FAA guidance, including an inspectors’ handbook. After studying the regulations and, apparently, finding no examples in the handbook that applied to their operations, the airmen then decided the area around their farm was not congested.

Unfortunately for the airmen, the ALJ agreed with the FAA. He concluded that the area over which the airmen had flown contained upwards of 30 homes, buildings, and structures and, as a result, was a "congested area." The ALJ also rejected a number of other defenses raised by the airmen and held that the airmen violated the regulations as alleged.

On appeal, the airmen renewed their argument that the area over which they had flown was not a "congested area." Initially, the Board observed that the FAA "has not pronounced a precise definition that includes the factors of the density of the population in an area; whether there is surface traffic in the vicinity; or the numbers and proximity of residences, buildings, or structures." It went on to note that "it is clear that the intent of the regulations is to protect persons and property on the ground and to fairly apply the rules to operators of aircraft, and, in the case of Part 137, to operators of agricultural aircraft." The Board then affirmed the ALJ's determination that the area over which the airmen had operated was a "congested area."

The Fourth Circuit's Decision

In their appeal of the NTSB's decision to the Fourth Circuit, the airmen argued that "the term 'congested area' violates the vagueness doctrine under the Due Process Clause (an argument the airmen were not able to make to the NTSB because the Board lacks jurisdiction to consider constitutional challenges), and that substantial evidence does not support the determination that they flew over a congested area."

With respect to the due process argument, the Court initially noted that a "statute is impermissibly vague if it either (1) fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct it prohibits or (2) authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." The Court then held that the airmen failed to show that they lacked a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct FAR 137.51 prohibits. Rather, the Court found that the inspector's warnings put the airmen on notice that the area could be considered congested and the airmen could have resolved any doubt by filing a congested area plan and waited for the inspector's response.

Additionally, the Court determined that the airmen had not shown that FAR 137.51 "authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement," or that the enforcement action against them was arbitrary. As a result, the Court concluded that FAR 137.51 was not unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause.

Next, the Court reviewed the record to determine whether substantial evidence supported the NTSB's determination that the area was congested. The Court observed that approximately thirty houses are located in the general vicinity of the area and that the airmen's flights passed over corner sections of that area. Based upon that review, the Court concluded "that the area over which [the airmen] flew could reasonably be considered congested based on substantial evidence in the record."

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the Court's decision doesn't shed much light on the "congested area" issue nor does it provide any meaningful clarification. Because this type of case is decided on a "case by case" basis, I think the Court's decision relied heavily on the ALJ's and NTSB's factual findings. As a result, we still do not have a clear definition of what constitutes a "congested area."

The due process argument was an interesting defense. If the airmen hadn't been warned by the inspector or if the airmen had submitted a congested area plan but received not response from the FAA, perhaps then the Court may have been more sympathetic. On a positive note, it appears this argument could still be successful given the right set of facts.

In the meantime, make sure you are familiar with area over which you fly if you want to push the limits of 91.119 and remember that the FAA, NTSB and the Court will judge your flight using 20/20 hindsight.

The information contained in this article is intended for your education and benefit and should not be relied upon as advice to help you with your specific issue. Each case is unique and must be analyzed by an attorney licensed to practice in your area with respect to the particular facts and applicable current law before any advice can be given. Posting a comment to this article does not create an attorney-client relationship and advice will not be given until an attorney-client relationship has been established.

FAA Enforcement Case Update

This month I thought I would provide you with another update regarding some of the recent NTSB cases involving FAA enforcement actions. They are instructive because they not only show you the FAA's and NTSB's positions regarding some of these issues, but they also provide some examples of problem areas a prudent airman should avoid.

NTSB Dismisses FAA Appeal For Untimely Filing Of Appeal Brief

In a recent NTSB case in which an administrative law judge awarded attorney's fees and costs to an airman under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), the Board dismissed the FAA's appeal of the EAJA award for failure to timely file an appeal brief. In Application of Hayes, the FAA timely filed its notice of appeal. However, the FAA did not then file an appeal brief by the deadline required by 14 C.F.R. 821.48(a). Although the FAA's appeal brief was dated the last day allowed by the rule and the certificate of service stated the brief was served by overnight mail on that date, the Federal Express tracking data indicated a pickup date of three days after the deadline for filing the brief.

Based upon the untimely filing, the airman subsequently filed a motion with the Board to have the FAA's appeal dismissed. The FAA did not respond to the motion within the time allowed, but did later file a notice of withdrawal. The Board ruled that the FAA's failure to show good cause for its untimely appeal brief, or to request, before the appeal brief was due, leave to file the appeal brief out of time, required dismissal of its appeal. As a result, the Board deemed the FAA's withdrawal of its appeal as moot.

Nice to know that, at least with respect to timing requirements for filing of appeals, the Board will treat the FAA the same as airmen.

ATP Receives 90-Day Suspension For Failure To Find Suitable Landing Site For Hot Air Balloon

In Administrator v. Chemello, the airline transport pilot landed a hot air balloon in a high school parking lot in the morning shortly before the start of classes. Of course, the balloon attracted a lot of attention from the teachers, students, local law enforcement and, not surprisingly, the FAA. The FAA investigated the incident and subsequently issued an order suspending the airman's ATP certificate for 90 days for alleged violation of FARs 91.119(b) (prohibiting operation of an aircraft over congested area below an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft) and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). The airman appealed the suspension to the NTSB.

After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") affirmed the suspension. Relying upon his determination of the witnesses' credibility, the ALJ held that the school parking lot was a "congested area" at the time of the landing and that no emergency was present that would have prevented the airman from landing the balloon in a different, suitable location. The airman appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board arguing that the ALJ's credibility determinations were contrary to the evidence.

The Board initially observed that an airman's "selection of a suitable landing site for a balloon is dependent upon the balloon's proximity to power lines, buildings, and trees, and the availability of alternative landing sites." It also noted that, in addition to generally deferring to an ALJ's credibility determinations, the Board will specifically defer to an ALJ's "credibility determinations with regard to whether a respondent believes that he or she must land a balloon in a certain area due to wind conditions." The Board concluded that the airman had not presented any evidence to compel it to disregard the ALJ's credibility determinations. As a result, the Board affirmed the ALJ's decision.

Tough to get a decision reversed when it is based upon the ALJ's credibility determinations. Unfortunately, this is typically the situation when a case involves a factual dispute, as opposed to a case involving a determination of whether undisputed facts support a violation. The key is to convince the ALJ at the hearing. But that, too, is easier said than done.

NTSB Affords Airman With Second Hearing After 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' Rebuke

After getting its proverbial wrist slapped by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the NTSB has afforded an airman a second hearing. In Administrator v. Klaber, the FAA charged the airman with violations of FARs 135.293(a)2 and (b) (requiring written/oral test and competency check within preceding 12 months), 135.299(a) (requiring line check within preceding 12 months), and, of course, the ever present residual violation of FAR 91.13(a) (the ever present careless and reckless). The FAA ordered a 90 day suspension of the airman's airline transport certificate as a sanction for the alleged violations. The airman appealed the order to the NTSB and, after a hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") affirmed the FAA's order, but reduced the suspension from 90 to 85 days. The airman then appealed to the full NTSB.

On appeal to the full board, the airman argued that the ALJ made a mistake when he prevented the airman from cross-examining an inspector, the FAA's primary witness, regarding a number of issues including the definition "for compensation or hire", the inspector's understanding of flight maintenance logs, the inspector's internal deliberations concerning his investigation into the airman's conduct, and the inspector's experience. The Board rejected the airman's appeal, finding that the ALJ had not abused his discretion nor did any alleged errors result in prejudice to the airman.

The Board specifically found that neither the inspector's understanding of "compensation or hire," nor his general perception of flight maintenance logs, were directly relevant to the evidence that he reviewed concerning the airman's alleged violations. It also concluded that the inspector's opinions during the course of his investigation or his discussions with other investigators were not relevant to the issue of whether the airman violated the regulations as charged by the FAA. As a result, the Board affirmed the ALJ's decision.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the Board. In its unpublished decision, Ferguson v. FAA, the Court determined that the Board had abused its discretion in upholding the ALJ's decision and that abuse of discretion was prejudicial to the airman. The Court initially observed that "[t]he Rules of Practice in Air Safety Proceedings provide that each party has the right to 'conduct such cross examination as may be required for a full and true disclosure of the facts." However, because the inspector "was the FAA's lone witness as to the revenue-generating nature of the disputed flights," the Court determined that the ALJ erred in not allowing cross-examination of the inspector on the many aspects of his testimony regarding that central issue. The Court stated that the ALJ's "reliance on [the inspector's] testimony, particularly as to the contents of the flight logs, makes clear that the error was prejudicial." The Court vacated the Board's decision and sent the case back to the Board for further action.

Although clearly not happy with the Court's decision, the Board complied with the decision, stating "[d]espite our well-established precedent with regard to our law judges' evidentiary rulings, and the reasoning that forms the basis for our deference to such rulings, we recognize that the Ninth Circuit believes that the law judge should have allowed respondent's counsel to question [the inspector] more fully in this case. As such, we are compelled to remand this case to the law judge so that he may oversee an additional hearing at which respondent's counsel may again cross-examine" the inspector."

It is unfortunate that the airman had to appeal all the way to the 9th Circuit in order to get his full day in court. However, you have to wonder whether the additional information that will be obtained through a full cross examination at the new hearing will change the ALJ's mind or provide a sufficient basis for appeal if he doesn't. We'll just have to see how it plays out.

Conclusion

As airmen, we should always be learning. We can learn from current NTSB cases. The obvious lesson is to not do what these airmen did. These cases also reveal what an airman may be able to expect from both the FAA and the NTSB in these situations. Forewarned is forearmed.