A recent article in Airport Business discloses that a non-profit air ambulance operator was recently fined $30,000.00 by the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) for referring to another operator’s helicopter as it’s own. According to the article, in addition to operating its own aircraft on its own operating certificate, the air ambulance operator formed another entity with two partners for operation of a helicopter under a separate operating certificate. The parties intended that the helicopter would be operated exclusively for the benefit of the air ambulance operator.
For 16 years the air ambulance operator used the helicopter when it was needed. During that time the air ambulance operator’s marketing and advertising referenced the air ambulance operator as staffing and operating the helicopter. It also published a newsletter in which it made references to “our medical helicopter,” “our helicopter,” or “our planes,” in a manner that the DOT believed implied ownership and operation of the helicopter by the air ambulance operator, rather than the operator under whose certificate the helicopter was being operated. According to the DOT, the air ambulance operator’s use of the personal pronouns constituted unfair and deceptive practices in the sales of air transportation, presumably in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712.
Interestingly, the issue of “operational control” is not mentioned. Perhaps the other certificate holder did, in fact, maintain operational control over the helicopter flights operated for the air ambulance operator. If so, that would explain why a civil penalty action was initiated by DOT rather than a certificate or civil penalty action by the FAA. In the absence of an operational violation, the FAA wouldn’t have any basis for an action.
Fortunately for the air ambulance operator, it was able to negotiate a reduced settlement with the DOT, probably with the help of an aviation attorney. However, in the article the manager for the operator stated that he wasn’t sure why the DOT didn’t just ask them to change the wording in their marketing. Good question.
My opinion is that the penalty was assessed because the DOT, and the FAA for that matter, believe that safety is more effectively accomplished through enforcement/punishment. However, in the absence of any alleged operational violations, I am not sure how forcing a non-profit operator to pay a fine furthers safety. I guess it is just business as usual for the DOT/FAA. And that’s too bad.