Presidential Aviation Inc. v. Fed. Aviation Admin. Fed. Aviation Adm'r

Decision Date17 August 2021
Docket Number20-14841
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit


Petition for Review of a Decision of the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration Agency No FAA 2016-5329

Before MARTIN, BRANCH, and GRANT, Circuit Judges.


Presidential Aviation, Inc. petitions for review of a Federal Aviation Administration decision ordering it to pay a civil penalty for repeatedly operating an aircraft that was not in airworthy condition and failing to document a mechanical irregularity. We deny the petition.


The parties stipulated to the facts giving rise to the FAA's complaint, and those facts remain undisputed. On October 21 2014, Presidential operated an aircraft that departed from Bogota, Colombia and flew to Cuba, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida, in that order. During the initial takeoff from the airport in Bogota, the aircraft's landing gear failed to retract, and an "AUTO SLATS" light illuminated. The pilot returned the aircraft to Bogota and contacted Presidential's maintenance department. After consulting with the maintenance director, the flight crew wiped grease from a proximity switch and verified that the "AUTO SLATS" light had gone out. They then reboarded the aircraft and departed-without testing the landing gear or documenting the problem in the aircraft's maintenance log.

According to Presidential, the aircraft completed the four flights scheduled that day without further incident. The last flight of the day involved transporting the owner of the aircraft from Pennsylvania to Florida. When the owner learned of the day's events, he instructed the crew to have the mechanical irregularities written up and have maintenance check the problem.

After the aircraft arrived in Florida, therefore, one of the pilots documented the incident in the maintenance log, and maintenance personnel performed a "gear swing" test to check the landing gear. The aircraft failed the test-the landing gear again would not retract and the "AUTO SLATS" light illuminated. Presidential then replaced the aircraft's left main proximity sensor.

The Federal Aviation Administration brought a complaint alleging (among other things) that Presidential failed to document a mechanical irregularity, in violation of 14 C.F.R. § 135.65(b), and operated an unairworthy aircraft on each of the four October 21, 2014 flights, in violation of 14 C.F.R. §§ 91.7(a) and 135.25(a)(2). The FAA proposed a civil penalty of $38, 825 for the five alleged regulatory violations.

The administrative law judge (ALJ) granted in part a motion for summary judgment by the FAA, finding that Presidential violated § 135.65(b) by failing to document the problems with the landing gear and the illumination of the "AUTO SLATS" light. After a hearing, the ALJ determined that Presidential had also committed two violations each of §§ 91.7(a) and 135.25(a)(2) by operating the aircraft in an unairworthy condition on the four flights between Bogota and Florida. The ALJ disagreed to some extent with the FAA's proposed penalty, however, and instead imposed a total penalty of $22, 158.

Both parties appealed the ALJ's decision. The Federal Aviation Administrator denied Presidential's appeal and granted the FAA's appeal in part, reversing the ALJ's sanctions determination and assessing a penalty of $36, 750. Presidential now seeks our review of the Administrator's decision.[1]


We have statutory authority to "affirm, amend, modify, or set aside any part" of the Administrator's order. 49 U.S.C. § 46110(c). But our standard of review is deferential; "we will uphold the agency's decision unless it is arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise contrary to law." Aerial Banners, Inc. v. FAA, 547 F.3d 1257, 1260 (11th Cir. 2008); see 5 U.S.C. § 706(2). This means that "we will set aside the FAA's order on substantive grounds only if the agency relied on improper factors, failed to consider important relevant factors, or committed a clear error of judgment that lacks a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made." Aerial Banners, Inc., 547 F.3d at 1260 (citation and quotation marks omitted). And the Administrator's findings of fact "are conclusive" if supported by substantial evidence. 49 U.S.C. § 46110(c).


In its petition, Presidential challenges (1) the Administrator's prehearing order granting summary judgment to the FAA on its claim that Presidential failed to document a mechanical irregularity in violation of 14 C.F.R. § 135.65(b); (2) the Administrator's finding that its aircraft was not in airworthy condition during the four October 21, 2014, flights, and the operation of the aircraft therefore violated 14 C.F.R. §§ 91.7(a) and 135.25(a)(2); and (3) the Administrator's partial grant of the FAA's appeal and assessment of a $36, 750 civil penalty. We consider each argument in turn.


Presidential contends that the Administrator erred in upholding the ALJ's grant of summary judgment in favor of the FAA on the allegation that it violated 14 C.F.R. § 135.65(b) by failing to document the landing-gear malfunction and illumination of the "AUTO SLATS" light. That regulation provides, in part, that the "pilot in command shall enter or have entered in the aircraft maintenance log each mechanical irregularity that comes to the pilot's attention during flight time." Presidential argues that whether "the wiping of the grease and/or the mere illumination of the Auto Slats enunciator" is a "mechanical irregularity" within the meaning of the regulation is a question of material fact that was not subject to resolution at summary judgment. We disagree-the interpretation of regulatory terms presents a pure question of law. See Ed Taylor Const. Co. v. Occupational Safety &Health Rev. Comm'n, 938 F.2d 1265, 1271 (11th Cir. 1991).

Presidential also argues that because it performed no maintenance to resolve the issues with the landing gear and indicator light before leaving Bogota the second time, there was no "mechanical irregularity" to record in the maintenance log. But the regulation says nothing about whether maintenance was performed to resolve the problem; it requires documentation of any mechanical irregularity that comes to the pilot's attention during flight time, as these issues undoubtedly did when they prompted his return to Bogota. And although the regulations do not define "mechanical irregularity," we find no error in the Administrator's conclusion that malfunctioning landing gear, at least, falls within the plain meaning of the term. See OED Online, Oxford University Press (June 2021), (defining "mechanical, adj. and n." as "[o]f, relating to, or dealing with machinery or mechanisms") and (defining "irregularity, n." as "[w]ant of conformity to rule; deviation from or violation of a rule, law, or principle; disorderliness in action; deviation from what is usual or normal; abnormality, anomalousness") (accessed August 11, 2021).


Presidential next challenges the Administrator's finding that it operated its aircraft in an unairworthy condition. Airworthiness is not simply a matter of "flyability." Copsey v. Nat'l Transp. Safety Bd., 993 F.2d 736, 739 (10th Cir. 1993). An aircraft is airworthy if it (1) "conforms to its type certificate," and (2) "is in condition for safe operation." 49 U.S.C. § 44704(d) (providing criteria for airworthiness certificate); see Copsey, 993 F.2d at 738.

The Administrator's finding that Presidential's aircraft was not airworthy when it departed from Bogota the second time and during each of the four October 21, 2014, flights is supported by substantial evidence. The record makes clear that the aircraft was designed to have landing gear that extends and retracts, and that the landing gear failed to retract on the aircraft's initial takeoff from Bogota causing an indicator light to illuminate. It is also clear that Presidential did not test the landing gear at any time from its initial malfunction until after it completed its fourth flight of the day-and when it...

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