FAA inspectors' authority
Inspectors can't confiscate your certificate
Often I am asked about an FAA inspector's authority to make certain requests of pilots, and what a pilot can do in response. Usually, we are talking about this issue in the context of an FAA inspector's duty in conducting surveillance at an airport, and the question also comes about if there has been an incident and the FAA inspector is investigating it. Let's begin with the scope of the basic rule that may require you to have your airman certificates and photo identification on your person. We can talk about your pilot logbook and aircraft records at another time.
Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 61.3, Requirements for Certificates, Ratings, and Authorizations, states that each person who acts as pilot in command or as a required pilot crewmember must have three documents in that person's physical possession or readily accessible: a valid pilot certificate or special purpose authorization, a photo identification (such as a driver's license, government ID, passport, armed forces ID, or airport security ID), and a current and appropriate medical certificate. Note that you are not required to have these documents with you if you are not acting as pilot in command of an aircraft, or as a required crewmember in an aircraft. So, if you're not required to have them, logic suggests that you should not be asked or required to present them.
In the circumstance where you are at the airport, getting ready to depart in an airplane--or perhaps you just landed after a flight--and an FAA inspector approaches you, what must you show the inspector? As noted above, in order to legally operate the aircraft, you must have your certificates and identification with you. Then, FAR 61.3(l) states,
Each person who holds an airman certificate, medical certificate, authorization, or license required by this part must present it and their photo identification as described in paragraph (a)(2) of this section for inspection upon a request from:
- The administrator;
- An authorized representative of the National Transportation Safety Board;
- Any federal, state, or local law enforcement officer; or
- An authorized representative of the Transportation Security Administration.
Note that the regulation specifies the individuals who are authorized to request and receive this information from you. You are not required to show the information to any other persons. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask the inspector for identification to establish that the inspector is acting on behalf of the FAA administrator--if so, you must therefore present them in accordance with the FAR.
Sometimes I am asked whether or not the pilot should allow the inspector to physically hold the certificates and identification. Whether or not you hold out the certificates and identification for the inspector to see, or whether you hand them to the inspector to look at, is a decision best made at the time. How the exchange is handled will depend a lot on the tone of the dialogue. In most instances, it is a polite and professional event. However, if you are not comfortable with what is happening between you and the inspector, you should invite someone to observe the interactions, if somebody else is not already present, to prevent a "he said, she said" argument later.
Be aware that there is no legal requirement that you engage in any sort of discussion with the inspector. Your legal obligations are to present your certificates and identification to the inspector for inspection, nothing more. And, the inspector is obligated to return the certificates and identification to you. The inspector does not have any legal authority to take custody of your certificates, no matter what may have occurred, unless you are voluntarily surrendering your certificates to the inspector for cancellation--this is an extremely exceptional circumstance that doesn't happen at the airport and requires that you sign a document indicating that you understand what you are doing.
Hence, if you are operating an aircraft as the pilot in command, or in another capacity as a required flight crewmember, you will need to have available your pilot and medical certificates and your photo ID. And, if an FAA inspector asks to inspect those items, you must present them for inspection.
Kathy Yodice is an attorney with Yodice Associates in Washington, D.C., which provides legal counsel to AOPA and administers AOPA's legal services plan. She is an instrument-rated private pilot.