Aviation Safety:

FAA's Use of Emergency Orders to Revoke or Suspend Operating Certificates

T-RCED-98-253: Published: Aug 6, 1998. Publicly Released: Aug 6, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) use of emergency orders to suspend or revoke aviation operating certificates, focusing on the: (1) extent to which FAA used emergency orders; (2) ways in which changes in FAA's policies might have affected the agency's use of emergency orders; and (3) time needed for FAA to investigate alleged violations and issue emergency orders.

GAO noted that: (1) of the 137,506 enforcement cases closed in fiscal years (FY) 1990 through 1997, FAA initiated 3 percent using emergency orders; (2) FAA's nine regions differed in how frequently they issued emergency orders partly as a result of their different enforcement practices; (3) most of the emergency orders were issued to pilots for either their operating certificates or their certificates of their medical fitness to fly; (4) 77 percent of the enforcement cases initiated as emergency actions resulted ultimately in the suspension or revocation of the certificate holder's operating certificate; (5) 5 percent resulted in FAA's dropping the case because it determined that no violation was committed or that it had insufficient evidence to prove a violation; (6) the outcomes were not specified for 6 percent of the cases, and the remainder involved a variety of other outcomes; (7) in 1990, FAA decided that, for those cases in which revocations are based on a demonstrated lack of qualification to hold the relevant certificate, the certificate generally should be revoked immediately and not after the lengthy appeal process that nonemergency certificate actions can be subject to; (8) FAA informally implemented this policy change in 1990 and 1991 before formally incorporating it into its compliance and enforcement guidance in 1992; (9) this shift in policy is reflected in the increase in the numbers of emergency actions GAO observed; (10) FAA initiated 184 revocations using emergency orders in FY 1990, and in subsequent years, over 320 emergency revocations were issued, on average, each year; (11) although the use of emergency orders is intended to expedite the handling of serious enforcement cases, the time needed for FAA to investigate violations and issue emergency orders varied widely, frequently taking several months or longer; (12) for half of the enforcement cases in FY 1990 through FY 1997, FAA issued the emergency order within about 4 months after learning of the violation; (13) for the remainder, the time needed to investigate and issue the order ranged from just over 4 months to over 2 years; (14) during this time, the certificate holder could continue to operate, that is, to fly or repair aircraft and possibly pose a safety risk; and (15) while it is necessary for FAA to act swiftly in cases that present an immediate threat to safety or a demonstrated lack of qualifications, some aviation attorneys in the private sector have questioned whether it is appropriate or necessary for FAA to handle some cases as emergencies, especially if the violations occurred years before.

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