Triggering the FAA Investigation

When conducting an investigation, FAA investigative personnel’s role is to gather all material, relevant evidence that either proves or disproves the potential violation. But before the investigation begins, FAA inspectors must first become aware of the potential discrepancy or event. This short article will briefly summarize the ways in which the FAA can become aware of a potential violations, and will also discuss, where available, recommendations and strategies to reduce the risk of triggering an FAA investigation.

Typically, the FAA becomes aware of a potential violation (the “event”) through (i) third-party complaints; (ii) ATC reports; (iii) surveillance or inspector observations; and/or (iv) inadvertent self-disclosure.


Generally, third-party complaints may be of two different varieties–formal and informal. It has been this Firm’s experience that more complaints against airmen, operators, etc. have been of the informal variety.

Informal complaints are authorized and encouraged by 14 C.F.R. §13.1. According to 14 C.F.R. §13.1 (FAR §13.1), “Any person who knows of a violation of the [FAR’s], should report it to appropriate personnel of any FAA regional or district office. [] Each report made…together with any other information the FAA may have that is relevant to the matter reported, will be reviewed by FAA personnel to determine the nature and type of any additional investigation or enforcement action the FAA will take.”

It is the policy of the FAA to promptly respond to all complaints received even if the complaint investigation does not result in a finding of regulatory noncompliance. However, if the complaint investigation results in a finding of regulatory noncompliance, and Enforcement Investigative Report (EIR) is initiated and the investigation is underway.

ATC Reports

In accordance with FAA Order JO 7210.632, Air Traffic Controllers are required to report the following occurrences, of which they are aware, through either direct involvement or observation:

  • Airborne or Airport Surface Loss of Separation between aircraft, or suspected loss of separation between an IFR aircraft and terrain or obstacles;
  • Any instance in which an aircraft enters airspace on other than the expected or intended altitude, routing, or airspeed, or without a point-out or hand-off;
  • Any instance where an aircraft operates at an altitude, routing, or airspeed that the employee providing air traffic services determines affected the safety of flight or operations;
  • All non-loss Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) resolution advisories (RA) and/or spillouts;
  • Any occurrence where an aircraft enters special use airspace (for example, a warning area, military operations area, or ATC-assigned airspace) without coordination and/or authorization;
  • The presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or pedestrian on any movement area or runway safety area not expected/intended by ATC;
  • Any instance in which an aircraft unexpectedly lands or departs, or attempts to land or depart, a runway or surface;
  • Any instance in which an aircraft lands or departs on, or flies an unrestricted low approach to, a closed runway;
  • Any go-around initiated by either a flight crew or ATC involving turbojet aircraft within a 1/2-mile of the arrival threshold not involving practice approaches;
  • Any instance in which any part of the aircraft has crossed over the runway hold-short line and the controller cancels the take-off or the flight crew aborts the take-off;
  • Any instance in which an aircraft unintentionally maneuvers off the runway/taxiway;
  • Any improper/unexpected presence of a vehicle or aircraft inside the instrument landing system (ILS) protected area;
  • Any instance in which communication with an aircraft was not established or not maintained as expected/intended, and results in alternative control actions or additional notifications by ATC, or a flight crew, or in a landing without a clearance;
  • Emergency or In-Flight Hazard;
  • Other Technical Matters



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