Little comma, big deal: Details matter to the FAA

I was editing a document the other day and was wrestling with how to make some wording in a sentence clearer. I thought to add a comma but hesitated because of a law article I had just read that described a recent court decision that turned on the placement of a comma. In that case, a person’s guilt or innocence hinged on what the lack of a comma meant. The municipality argued that the missing comma was a typographical error. The individual argued that the lack of comma was intentional and gave meaning to the ordinance that left the individual innocent of the charges. The individual won. So, with all the regulations imposed on us by the FAA, and the many commas inserted in those regulations, I wondered if there was an FAA case where a comma made a difference.

For good or bad, I didn’t find much.

In one enforcement case, the FAA charged a flight crew with climbing above their assigned altitude while on a departure procedure. Part of the crew’s argument involved a reading of the language on the standard instrument departure (SID) that they were executing. The SID stated that turbo jets maintain 5,000 feet “comma” and propeller aircraft maintain 3,000 feet “or assigned altitude.” The law judge thought it unfair for the FAA to argue that the crew was on notice that they should anticipate any altitude assignment and that the crew could not use the SID to reasonably rely on 5,000 feet to be their altitude assignment. The judge held that the “or assigned altitude” phrase applied only to propeller aircraft because of the placement of the comma. This part of the argument didn’t matter ultimately in the case because the NTSB concluded that ATC amended the clearance and the crew failed to hear and then follow that amended clearance. Still, it’s worth noting that the comma had meaning to the NTSB’s review of the FAA’s enforcement position. By the way, the SID no longer has this language.

In another instance not involving a comma but involving a semicolon, the FAA chief counsel’s office was asked whether language placed on the same line of a subparagraph but separated with a semicolon meant that the language applied only to that line or whether it also applied to the language in the subparagraph that preceded it. The regulation addressed two types of flight—IFR and VFR. The first subparagraph referred to a flight conducted under IFR, and the second subparagraph referred to a flight conducted under VFR. The FAA recognized that the placement of the language immediately following the reference to VFR flight could lead to a mistaken interpretation that it applied only to VFR flight. However, the FAA explained that the “intent” was for the language to apply to both IFR and VFR flight, as indicated by the placement of a semicolon. Today, that regulation is phrased differently.

It appears that punctuation can matter in understanding how a regulation may apply to our flight activities. And, punctuation could make a difference in evaluating the merit of an FAA enforcement case. It’s worth watching those punctuation marks!

Back to my editing, I added a comma. I think the sentence is much clearer now.

Kathy Yodice
Kathy Yodice
Ms. Yodice is an instrument rated private pilot and experienced aviation attorney who is licensed to practice law in Maryland and the District of Columbia. She is active in several local and national aviation associations, and co-owns a Piper Cherokee and flies the family Piper J-3 Cub.

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