The FAA has five classes of action it can take if it believes you have violated airspace or broken flight regulations.
For minor misdemeanors, it will enforce an administrative action. If it believes your skills or knowledge are lacking, it can make you retake your examinations – with your classes or license pending, under Federal Law (49 USC Section 44709).
Certificate actions can seriously endanger your right to fly certain types of airplane, as your certificates may be forfeit. Then there are the less arcane but arguably more serious civil actions and criminal penalties.
Timescales for action differ depending on the kind of infraction and the kind of action demanded. When it comes to actions where the FAA judges a pilot’s license or certificates may need amending or revoking, it has six months to begin a case.
Where it decides that a monetary penalty is the most appropriate course of action, you’re not going to be able to breathe out anything like so fast – it has up to two years to begin a financial or civil action.
How long does an FAA violation stay on your record?
Again, the answer to this depends on the nature and severity of the violation. Smaller violations will tend to stay on the pilot’s record for a shorter period of time, while the more serious a violation is, the longer the penalty remains visible on their record.
And naturally, when an incident moves into the likes of criminal penalties, the length of time the infraction remains on a pilot’s record becomes a secondary concern.
The least serious FAA violations, Administrative actions, may often not result in marks on a pilot’s record at all – especially if the pilot themselves either volunteers information or works with the FAA to immediately understand the nature of the violation.
Where this is not possible, Administrative actions are supposed to be expunged from a pilot’s record after two years, so they can continue their career progress without a stain.
Obviously, re-examination is not strictly a violation, but your license can be suspended indefinitely pending your re-taking of the examination – and re-passing it.
So that’s a moveable feast, but how long it moves for depends on you getting the successful re-testing over and done with at the earliest opportunity. If your license is revoked or suspended, or if you accrue a monetary penalty to pay, the violation will stay on your record for five years.
In the case of revocation or suspension of course, five years is a practical lifetime in terms of earning a salary as a pilot, or being up to speed with regulations and practices – so it may take even longer before you can fly at the same level again.
Civil or criminal violations will carry their own terms, above and beyond the FAA violation, and need to be dealt with first and foremost when they happen.
What is an FAA violation?
An FAA violation is in many ways exactly what it sounds like. Any time you violate any of the rules about flying your particular class of aircraft, you’re likely to encounter one of the classes of FAA violation.
In essence, the FAA governs the safe operation of aircraft, within a framework of national and where necessary international aviation law.
This framework covers everything from safe runway operation, the training and certification needed to fly various classes of aircraft or to fly in various types of weather, to the correct procedure and limits of fueled flight.
Rights of way, near-misses, navigation, and obedience to instruction from land-based flight control stations, all come under FAA jurisdiction.
That means all the things you learn as a pilot at various levels – from your Private Pilot’s License through to your Commercial Pilot’s License and your instrument rating – are subject to the rules of safe aviation, as defined and operated by the FAA.
Break any of the rules, intentionally or accidentally, and you violate the FAA’s rules. Given that your license and certification to fly particular classes of aircraft are granted by the FAA, the Authority can implement actions to correct, censure, revoke or suspend your license, or to impose financial fines, to ensure the safety of the skies and to encourage future compliance.
That is why there are several classes of FAA violations – and similarly, several classes of actions the Authority can take to deal with those infractions. The lightest type of actions, the Administrative action, might well be only the equivalent of a letter outlining what you did wrong - a written warning, essentially.
The FAA can make you re-sit your examinations, though, if it feels you need the refresher. It can suspend your license or your certificates, restricting you to particular types of flying.
Or ultimately, it can revoke your license to fly at all, or move into either civil or even criminal actions if your actions had a strong likelihood of causing major harm to many people.