According to an article in the Tulsa World, (FAA will not pursue legal action against Inhofe), Senator Inhofe has reached an agreement with the FAA under which he received a warning letter and agreed to remedial training to avoid any action against his airman certificate. As you may recall, the Senator landed on a closed runway back in October of 2010. At the time, I was very curious to see whether the Senator would be treated the same as any other airman in that situation. We now have the answer: No, he was not treated the same.
I believe the Senator received preferential treatment. Based upon the facts reported in the media, which I acknowledge did not tell the whole story (of course, they never do), I think any other airman would most likely have been looking at a suspension of his or her certificate. First, the FAA rarely agrees to remedial training these days. Although a warning letter and remedial training are probably more effective at preventing future violations, the FAA seems to prefer certificate action. Second, this type of operational violation, where the potential for an accident or injury to someone on the ground was significant, usually generates a certificate action seeking suspension of an airman’s certificate.
Interestingly, the Senator seemed to acknowledge the possibility of preferential treatment when he stated “I often wonder though if I had not been a United States senator … somebody who is just a pilot would have gone through this and if they were not able to get the two documents that I want, they could have ended up losing their license.” Although he still denies that he did anything wrong.
This is a great result for the Senator. A warning letter, no finding of violation, remedial training and expungement after two years. But, does it mean that those of us who are not U.S. Senators are doomed to second-class citizen status when it comes to dealing with the FAA? Maybe not.
It is possible that the Senator’s case could be cited as precedent. Even though the FAA has discretion in how it handles investigations and enforcement, and its treatment of the Senator doesn’t require it to treat other airmen in similar circumstances the same way, perhaps the court of opinion won’t look too kindly on disparate treatment. Will that be enough to influence an FAA inspector to pursue administrative action rather than a certificate action? Who knows?
However, as an aviation attorney, I’ll put my money on the FAA continuing to pursue certificate actions.