Criminal Records and Background Checks

I, nor any of the mentors on this website, nor www., nor ATP are attorneys and are not able to dispense legal advice. Individuals with legal questions should consult an aviation attorney.

First I have to start by saying I really can’t believe I’m writing this for the FAQ section. Apparently the pilot shortage, Regionals actively recruiting and a fair amount of press has created a significant interest in the possibilities of becoming an airline pilot. There also seems to be a fair amount of people who’ve had blemishes on their records (some obviously worse than others) and the question of what effect this will have a potential career has become an FAQ (being asked almost as often as any other, at least recently).

If this were just a few years ago (pre-shortage) the answer would’ve been simple and this would be a VERY short conversation. If you had a criminal record you were pretty much done. While the airlines were hiring it wasn’t very much and the supply was significantly greater than the demand. Even a couple of moving violations were the kiss of death (forget DUIs or more serious offenses). Frankly this wasn’t even a question that got asked because the airlines were crystal clear and when I participated in hiring at my Regional I literally never looked at a single applicant with anything worse than a speeder. Why? Because the application would’ve been tossed before anyone got near a interview. But times have changed and the Regionals need pilots. A friend of mine who’s in recruiting for a Regional recently told me “if you’ve got 1500hrs and a pulse we’ll talk to you”. Whether or not this is a good thing can be debated but this post is about what is currently happening in the industry. So the question is I have “something” undesirable on my record, can I get hired? The answer is yes, no and maybe? So let’s talk about a few things.

First Class Medical: before you get anywhere near an airline you obviously must be trained and you will need to obtain an FAA First Class Medical, can’t be an airline pilot without one. On the medical application it very clearly states:

History of (1) any conviction(s) involving driving while intoxicated by, while impaired by, or while under the influence of alcohol or a drug; or (2) history of any conviction(s) or administrative action(s) involving an offense(s) which resulted in the denial, suspension, cancellation, or revocation of driving privileges or which resulted in attendance at an educational or a rehabilitation program.

Further it says:

Item 18. Medical History
v. History of Arrest(s), Conviction(s) and/or Administrative Action(s)
w. History of nontraffic convictions. The applicant must report any other (nontraffic) convictions (e.g., assault, battery, public intoxication, robbery, etc.).

that pretty much covers everything and you MUST report ANY and ALL issues related to alcohol, drugs, or anything that let to a driving suspension. Whether you were convicted or not, whether you plead down and/or took a class (that’s what they mean by administrative actions) they want to know. More important they want YOU to tell them. For crimes outside of those just listed, you must report any convictions, but not arrests. This is a Federal form and there’s all kinds of print at the end that talks about lying on it and fines and charges etc but trust me they know. Does this mean you won’t get your medical? Not at all but they want you to fess up and depending on the charges, the history etc etc they will make a decision, but that’s your first hurdle. Next…

“I’m a good pilot isn’t that all that matters?”. Short answer no. You need to understand that airlines are very much in the public eye. While accidents and incidents are rare, when they do happen it’s news, BIG NEWS. Not sure how many of you remember the crash of Colgan 3407 but this crash changed our industry forever. The Airline Safety Act was created which led to the 1500hr Rule (which was instrumental to the current shortage) and much greater use of PRIA (Pilot Records Improvement Act). So what’s my point? If you followed the story at all as the investigation progressed we learned more and more about the 2 pilots who died that evening. Everything from what they ate for lunch, their relationships, their commute, everything was/is fair game. Colgan and Continental caught ALOT of flack (and bad press) because of the Capts history of checkride failures. That’s another subject open for debate, BUT if it had come out that the pilots also had a history of criminal activity, substance abuse and bad behavior and the airline still put the public’s lives in their hands things would’ve been much worse. That’s a problem. Second probably the biggest single problem most airlines have with their pilots is “non-compliance”. Pilots have STACKS of manuals (well now tablets) chock full of rules and regs to be followed. Thing is airline operations are very repetitive and repetition leads to complacency which leads to taking shortcuts. That’s a concern for all pilots. But if you’ve got an individual with a history of disregarding/disobeying the rules (ie, breaking the law), well that person hasn’t even gotten complacent yet and they’re already a concern. Like it or not I think you can understand the concern.

We get many people who say “I’m good, my record was expunged, sealed, bla bla bla”. Newsflash, we live in the information age. I sprained my ankle last week and Googled treatment on my laptop. Next thing I knew all kinds of braces and ads for KT Tape showed up on my FB newsfeed. The govt knows when I flush my toilet you think they don’t know you were arrested? Trust me they do. And while the airlines may not be able to pull up your record, you will need to get an airport security badge to grant you access to secured areas. There’s an agency known as the Dept of Homeland Security (perhaps you’ve heard of them? They’re the folks that brought you Guantanamo Bay) and they’re the people that will be doing your background check. Tell me again how no one knows you were arrested?

Ok so what’s the moral of the story? The short answer is there is no short answer. There are far too many variables to give a simple answer. There is no “if you have 2 misdemeanors but they’re not substance related”, or you “had a drug arrest but it was thrown out”. Doesn’t exist. What I can tell you is this, obviously the less issues the better and time is your best friend. The more time you can place between yourself and your bad behavior the better. Why? Because time can support the theory that while you had an issue or issues, it’s not a lifelong pattern. If you had problems in your teens, then again in your 20’s, then again and again, no one is going to buy that it was a fluke or bad luck. If you’re reading this and you’re just starting out you need to remain SQUEAKY clean. I cannot emphasize this enough. You’re one and only possible defense (if you’re fortunate enough to get an interview) is that was then and I’m a different person now. If you continue to break the law (even speeding tickets) then you’ve obviously learned nothing. What you also have to your advantage is the fact that due to the shortage the Regional recruiters will talk to you (in the past they would not). If you’re concerned give them a call. Tell them your story and they will tell you where you stand. Better than that you really can’t do.

As for the Majors that’s really a whole different conversation. The Majors are the pinnacle of our industry and they are FAR from desperate. They receive hundreds of applications daily from hundreds of qualified pilots with clean records. Does that mean getting to a Major is impossible? Again it depends on many factors but I’d be lying if I said it’s going to be easy. I’ve participated in hiring and if I’m looking at you and you’ve got a very clear negative on your record you had better have some SERIOUS positives to make me want to forget the bad. That of course is if your application makes it that far.

Finally we’re also asked if I do get an interview how should I answer? Sorry but I’m not going to help you with that other than to say be honest. The people who do interviews are generally pretty good at detecting when you’re lying or lacking sincerity. Hopefully you learned something from the experience but if you didn’t well you didn’t.


I, nor any of the mentors on this website, nor www., nor ATP are attorneys and are not able to dispense legal advice. Individuals with legal questions should consult an aviation attorney.


So kids i just spent the week of Leadership Training at the Alpa (Airline Pilots Association headquarters, the largest pilot union in the World) and the subject of criminal records etc. came up. The Chairman of Aeromedical brought up a really fun story. Apparently they recently had a case where a Regional newhire who believed their record was expunged answered “No” to the “have you ever been arrested” question on their medical. Again the FAA medical is a Federal document and they tell you very plainly that lying on it is a Federal offense. The FAA actually missed it and he had his First Class but when they did the airport security check it came up. Homeland Security passed the info to the airline and who promptly fired the individual. Pretty bad right? Well the folks at DHS also passed the info on to the FAA. They didn’t fine the person nor did they threaten them with jail time. They simply voided ALL their licenses and ratings. The months or years of training and the tens of thousands of dollars spent gone, all gone (yes they can do that).

Just a cautionary tale that gave me goosebumps I thought I’d share.