Record Retention – It Depends

I’m often asked how long to keep aviation records – flight logs, weight and balance information, risk assessments, and so on. I think people are hoping for a simple response that covers all sorts of records but the answer is: it depends. It is important to consider regulatory requirements, existing company policies, and the purpose of the record when deciding how long to keep records.

1. What do the regulations require? Let’s look at what should be a simple answer. Load manifests must be retained by operators of multiengine aircraft for a period of 30 days according to 135.63(d). Swell. A clear –cut answer. Maybe.  How does your company do load manifests? Are they part of the dispatch sheet or flight log? If so, what other information is contained on the record? What about aircraft maintenance status information or pilot flight and duty times? The regulations provide a “no less than” limitation but don’t necessarily cover all the bases. If you use the same document for load manifests and pilot flight and duty times, how long should you keep the document? 135.63(b) requires these records be kept for at least 12 months.

2. What does your company policy say? Be sure your record retention practices comply with any existing company policy. Ignoring a company policy and destroying records prior to the documented date could look suspicious in the event of an audit, inspection, or investigation, even if the records were erased or tossed out because of ignorance of the company policy and not an intentional attempt to conceal information.

3. What does the record prove? The bottom line of good record retention practices is to consider what that record proves. Does it prove your pilots’ flight and duty time? Does it prove a training event occurred? For example, 135.63(b) requires an operator to keep training records for initial and recurrent training for a period of 12 months. How about a record of a pilot’s first indoctrination class at your company? If you dispose of all training records after 12 months, how would you ever prove to the FAA that particular pilot was initially qualified to fly for your company when he/she started years before? That initial qualification is the first step in establishing compliance. (In my opinion the 12 month requirement is a bit flimsy anyway – if your pilot goes to training in the late grace month, you could have an imperfect picture of his/her training events if you automatically dispose of the previous training event at exactly 12 months.)

Consider tax records for a moment. Typically we’re told to keep records related to your tax return for a three-year period following your filing date. But let’s say you had a charitable contribution in 2010 that exceeded the annual limit but was eligible to roll over to the next year. You can’t discard the records related to that 2010 tax return in three years because you used information from that return (the rollover) again in 2011, thereby extending the record retention period by one year. The same holds true for aviation records. (Speaking of taxes – think about which aviation-related records could be crucial in the event of an IRS audit! Suddenly 30 days or even 12 months doesn’t seem so great.)

Obviously there comes a time when you have to determine which records are important to retain and which can be disposed of or you’d eventually drown in paper. Keeping records longer than the regulatory requirement could give the FAA an opportunity to find old “discrepancies” but records are often the only way you can prove compliance when the FAA comes knocking. When it comes to FAA investigations, a colleague of mine often says, “He with the most paper wins”. Be sure your record retention practices meet the minimum regulatory requirement. Revise any company policies that are inconsistent with the regulations or your own practices. And most importantly, consider what the record proves you did or didn’t do.

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