What Happens When a Pilot Gets a DUI

Male pilot and co-pilot checking instrument panel in airplane cockpit
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Modern news outlets are peppered with stories of pilots who drink and fly...or try to, anyway. But what are the consequences to a pilot when caught drinking and driving? For airline pilots, this question is a complicated one, and one that leads, more often than not, to the accused being fired by the airline. But that doesn't necessarily mean s/he won't fly again. 

What Typically Happens After a DUI

There are two pieces to the puzzle here. After a DUI, a pilot must answer to his or her company, as well as to the FAA. A pilot can be denied an aviation medical certificate for a DUI, which will prevent him or her 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 (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) on his or her record, but not without being examined by the FAA.

Pilots must report any history of arrests, convictions, or other administrative action to the FAA within 60 days of an 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 or DWI 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 you weren't forthcoming on your medical application, they will likely deny or revoke it, along with any pilot certificates you may hold.

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

If It's Your First and Only DUI 

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

If the DUI conviction was a few years ago during college and you've since become a mature member of society, you shouldn't have a problem getting a medical certificate.

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 have had no other arrest or conviction at any other time, your medical examiner has the authority to issue an aviation medical certificate without involving the FAA.

That's not all, though: 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 incidents that may 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 cases, though, when your examiner will not be able to issue a medical certificate. Even with just one DUI or DWI, your application cannot be approved and 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 preceding two years
  • You've been arrested three or more times in your lifetime, or
  • 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 have, indeed, cleaned up your act.

If You Have More Than One DUI 

More than one DUI or DWI 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 or persistent alcohol abuse, requiring considerable scrutiny under 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. Even so, even after a denial, you can appeal the decision.