Aviation Safety:

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

RCED-98-199: Published: Jul 23, 1998. Publicly Released: Aug 6, 1998.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) use of emergency orders during fiscal years 1990 through 1997, focusing on: (1) the extent to which FAA used emergency orders, including data on regional variation in their use, the types of certificate holders affected, and the final outcomes of cases initiated using emergency orders; (2) the ways in which changes in FAA's policies might have affected the agency's use of emergency orders; and (3) the time needed for FAA to investigate alleged violations and issue emergency orders.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA used emergency orders to initiate action to revoke or suspend operating certificates in 3 percent (3,742) of the 137,506 enforcement cases closed during fiscal years 1990 through 1997; (2) as FAA moved to handling less serious enforcement cases through administrative actions rather than certificate actions, the number of certificate actions decreased, and emergency orders came to represent a larger proportion of the more serious certificate actions that remained, increasing from 10 percent in 1990 to an annual average of nearly 20 percent over the following 7 years; (3) emergency orders as a percentage of certificate actions varied by FAA region, resulting from differences in enforcement practices and from unusual circumstances in an individual case; (4) in fiscal years 1990 through 1997, nearly 60 percent of the emergency orders revoked or suspended pilots' operating certificates or the certificates of their medical fitness to fly; (5) FAA initiated a substantially higher proportion of certificate actions with emergency orders for pilots with commercial operating certificates than for air transport pilots; (6) over three-quarters of the enforcement cases initiated using emergency orders resulted in the suspension or revocation of the certificate holder's operating certificate, and fewer than 5 percent resulted ultimately in FAA's dropping the case because it determined that no violation was committed or had insufficient evidence to prove a violation; (7) during fiscal years 1990 through 1997, FAA implemented a formal change in its policy on emergency actions that is reflected in the increased number of revocations using emergency orders; (8) 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 other nonemergency certificate actions can be subject to; (9) FAA informally implemented this policy change in 1990 and 1991 before formally incorporating it into its compliance and enforcement guidance in 1992; (10) FAA initiated 184 revocations using emergency orders in fiscal year 1990, after which this number increased, ranging between 264 and 382 annually; and (11) although the use of emergency orders is intended to expedite the handling of serious enforcement of cases in which operating certificates are revoked or suspended, the time needed for FAA to investigate violations and issue emergency orders varied widely.