For now, flying without a required third class medical certificate has consequences

While the clock is already winding down on the FAA’s deadline to implement third class medical reform, you can’t take advantage of the new law to fly without a third class medical certificate just yet. Until the FAA’s new or revised regulations are in place or the law’s prohibition on enforcement actions takes effect, it is important for pilots to remember that there are serious consequences for flying without a medical certificate as required by the current federal aviation regulations.

The “FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016” containing third class medical reform was signed into law on July 15, and sets important dates for the FAA. The new law directs the FAA to issue or revise regulations that ensure pilots can operate under the provisions of third class medical reform no later than 180 days from July 15, 2016. However, the law does not provide any specific consequence for the FAA’s failure to meet this deadline until one year passes from the date of the law’s enactment.

If the FAA has still not published final regulations in the Federal Register by July 15, 2017, then the FAA is prohibited from taking enforcement action against a pilot who does not hold a medical certificate but is making a good faith effort to fly in accordance with the provisions of third class medical reform.

Until the new regulations are in place, or the prohibition on enforcement action takes effect, airmen are required to meet the medical certificate requirements of the current federal aviation regulations. According to 14 CFR 61.3(c): “Medical certificate,” a person may serve as a required pilot flight crewmember of an aircraft only if that person holds the appropriate FAA-issued medical certificate, or other documentation acceptable to the FAA, that is in that person's physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft. The exceptions to the rule include, among others, operations involving sport pilot certificates, balloons, and gliders.

Airmen can run afoul of 14 CFR 61.3(c) in several different ways, subjecting themselves to fines and even revocation of their airmen certificates. If an airman has a current and valid medical certificate, but operates an aircraft without that medical certificate in his or her physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft, the FAA’s sanction guidance recommends a “minimum” civil penalty, typically in the amount of $500 to $649.

Operating an aircraft without a current medical certificate when an airman is otherwise medically qualified (e.g., an expired medical certificate or a medical certificate not appropriate to the airman certificate privileges exercised) violates 14 CFR 61.3(c), in which case the FAA’s sanction guidance recommends a 30- to 180-day suspension of an airman’s pilot certificates. 

The FAA’s sanction guidance provides for revocation of an airman’s pilot certificates in cases where an airman violates 14 CFR 61.3(c) by operating an aircraft without a medical certificate when he or she is not medically qualified (e.g., an airman has a disqualifying condition and lets his medical expire), or after the airman’s application for a medical certificate has been deferred or denied. There are numerous cases in which the NTSB has upheld the FAA’s revocation of the pilot certificates of an airman who continued to fly despite being denied a medical certificate. In these cases, the board readily rejects arguments seeking a lesser sanction, often citing safety concerns and the airman’s attitude of non-compliance with regulatory authority.

If the revocation of an airman’s pilot certificate fails to keep the airman grounded, then the FAA could impose civil penalties or seek a court order compelling compliance with the threat of fines and/or imprisonment. Federal criminal charges also can be brought under 49 U.S.C. § 46306, which provides for fines and imprisonment up to three years for knowingly and willfully acting as an airman without an airman’s certificate.

So, until the new regulations are in place or the prohibition on enforcement actions takes effect, pilots should ensure that they meet the requirements of the current federal aviation regulations. The FAA indicates that the agency is on track to finalize third class medical regulations within the 180 day time limit set by Congress. Once those regulations are available for review, we will provide further guidance.

Now is the chance you have been waiting for. Join your fellow AOPA members in taking a proactive approach when the new regulations become effective. Learn more about the program here.  Ready to enroll? You may do so here.

Jared Allen
Mr. Allen is AOPA’s Legal Services Plan (LSP) senior staff attorney and is an instrument-rated private pilot. He provides initial consultations to pilots through the LSP when the FAA has contacted them about potential FAR violations. Jared has helped numerous pilots successfully navigate through compliance actions.

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