What Happens When a Pilot Gets a DUI

If a pilot gets a DUI, serious consequences ensue.
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Modern news is peppered with stories of pilots who drink and fly—or attempt to do so. The story plays into the fear of flight and the outrage and betrayal we feel upon learning that our utmost trust in another person was abused.

Which raises the question: while they're still on solid ground, what are the consequences for a pilot (or trainee) who gets caught drunk driving?

What Happens After Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

For commercial pilots, this question is complicated, but it often leads to the accused being fired by the airline; if they're in the training process when the conviction occurs, their application could be rejected. In either case, a single DUI doesn't mean a pilot won't be given the chance to fly again. 

There are two primary variables to consider: after a DUI has been issued by a legal authority, a pilot must separately answer to their company and to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A pilot can be denied an aviation medical certificate for a DUI, which will prevent them from exercising the privileges of a pilot certificate. Beyond that, company policies are usually very strict surrounding alcohol use and felonies.

Aviation Medical Exams

An applicant may pass an aviation medical exam successfully with a previous DUI on their record, but not without also being examined by the FAA.

Pilots must report any history of arrests, convictions, or other administrative action to the FAA within 60 days of the occurrence while under license, and certainly, these must be reported on medical exam applications as well. Additionally, details regarding a history of any kind of substance abuse, including alcohol, must be provided on the application. 

Many people think they can get away with not reporting alcohol violations, but failure to report a DUI can result in the revocation of current medical certificates and/or pilot certificates by the FAA. The FAA obtains driving records for medical applicants, and if they find out an individual was not forthcoming on a medical application, they will likely deny or revoke it—along with any pilot certificates.

If It's Your First and Only DUI 

There are a few things to take note of if you find yourself with a drunk driving offense.

A single DUI is not always justification for an aviation medical examiner or the FAA to deny a medical certificate, but such infractions could cause issuance delays; such cases are generally deferred to the FAA for review, and take longer to process.

If the DUI conviction is several years past, and you can prove that in the intervening years you've become a more mature, responsible member of society, you shouldn't have a problem getting a medical certificate. Evidence of growth ought to come in the form of substance abuse counseling, or another personal commitment to sobriety and physical health.

If you received a DUI with a blood alcohol content less than 0.15; and you never refused to submit to blood alcohol testing; and you report it to the FAA as required; and you've had no other arrests or convictions at any other time, your medical examiner has the authority to issue an aviation medical certificate without involving the FAA.

But thats not all! You must also prove that you do not have a substance abuse problem or an addiction, and have kept an otherwise perfect record. In addition, you'll have to provide the examiner with all requested documentation, including court records and reports, a detailed history of your alcohol abuse, and all alcohol-related legal incidents that have occurred in your past (within 14 days of your exam.)

With all of this in mind, your aviation medical examiner will determine whether or not to issue a medical certificate.

There are some overt issues that prevent your examiner from issue a medical certificate. Even with just one DUI, your application will be deferred to the FAA if any of the following conditions exist:

  • Your blood alcohol content was above 0.15.
  • You are unable to provide necessary documentation within 14 days.
  • You refused to submit to a blood-alcohol test.
  • You had any other arrests, convictions or corrective actions against you within the preceding two years.
  • You've been arrested three or more times in your lifetime.
  • You've had two arrests, convictions or corrective actions against you in the previous ten years.

If You Get Deferred

Don't panic—there's still hope that your aviation medical certificate will be approved. If your medical certificate was deferred to the FAA, then you'll probably end up in paperwork up to your ears. Some of these deferments will be approved, and some will be denied.

For example, a DUI with a clinically diagnosed substance abuse problem is a disqualifying situation, unless you can provide evidence of recovery (total abstinence) for a minimum of two years. So, while a single DUI will hurt you, there's hope. Some people may end up waiting a year or two to get a medical certificate, but it's possible to get back in the game if you've truly cleaned up your act.

If You Have More Than One DUI 

More than one DUI will cause problems with your application for an aviation medical certificate, as the FAA views this as more of a habitual problem, possibly having to do with addiction, and you'll undergo considerable scrutiny during your review.

Unless you have documentation, rehab paperwork, and have been clean and sober for at least a year, you will find it tough to convince the folks at the FAA that you are medically fit for flight. Keep in mind that you can appeal the decision—no matter the outcome.