- Oct 28, 2002
- Total Time
Medical flights could resume in November
Air Trek Inc. is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with an action plan that will allow it to resume air ambulance flights.
Hearings before a National Transportation Safety Board administrative law judge concluded last Friday with the dismissal of charges alleging that Air Trek had violated FAA safety regulations.
Air Trek had been grounded since late May based on a report by FAA examiners that focused on Air Trek's record-keeping practices rather than the actual airworthiness of its Punta Gorda-based fleet of seven airplanes.
Based at Charlotte County Airport, Air Trek flies upwards of 1,000 medical missions a year, mainly in the Americas, but occasionally to Europe and the Pacific Rim nations.
There are two main obstacles remaining, said Dana Carr, vice president and director of operations for Air Trek, which he and his brother, Wayne, founded 30 years ago.
First, the FAA requires air ambulance pilots to pass a test flight every six months. Carr explained that Air Trek can't begin flying medical missions until the FAA administers these check flights.
Also, the FAA has 10 days to appeal the judge's adverse decision.
"It's been devastating. We had to lay off 50-plus local employees," Carr said. "That hurt, and unfortunately we're not going to be able to get all of them back, because some of them have accepted other jobs," Carr said.
Air Trek "lost over a million a month in gross revenues," Carr said. The carrier struggled along for the past five months mainly by brokering air ambulance flights with other carriers on behalf of its longtime clients. It also provided nurses to travel with convalescent patients on commercial flights.
"For 50 employees and 50 families, this is just great news," said Gary Quill, executive director of the Charlotte County Airport.
The airport will be negotiating with Air Trek on some measures that could help its recovery, Quill said. One idea being considered is for the airport to buy Air Trek's hangar and lease it back to the carrier.
The NTSB hearings were held in Tampa and Miami in three sessions over a five-week period, according to Gregory Winton, attorney for Air Trek. Judge William A. Pope II concluded the proceeding with an oral decision to reverse the FAA's June 10 decision to revoke Air Trek's "Part 135 Certificate," which is an FAA-issued license to operate an air charter service.
Winton said he doesn't believe the FAA will appeal Pope's decision, because an adverse ruling by the full NTSB becomes a written precedent that can be used against the FAA in future legal proceedings.
In several recent cases, the FAA has attempted to use lax record-keeping as a justification for grounding air carriers, Winton said. Judges have sometimes accepted such arguments, but just as often rejected them.
"Lack of paperwork is lack of paperwork. You can't assume that an aircraft is not airworthy as a result," Winton said.
And Air Trek's records weren't even in bad shape. The FAA's Tampa-based inspection teams had reviewed Air Trek repeatedly and always gave it top marks, Winton said. The trouble started only when an FAA team that included officials from New York and Atlanta made an unannounced inspection that resulted in a long list of highly technical paperwork shortcomings.
Winton, a Rockville, Md. attorney who specializes exclusively in aviation law, said that the FAA will probably want to let Pope's decision rest -- because if the agency doesn't, then he will be quoting the Air Trek case as a precedent the next time a similar dispute goes to hearing.
"It's like playing chess, you've got to think five steps ahead," Winton said.
The only charges that Pope found merit with involved records of aircraft that Air Trek formerly based at Winchester, Va. But Winton noted that the judge actually found that the pilots, rather than management, were at fault for these problems.
Eric Byer, government affairs director for the National Air Transportation Association, said his Washington-based trade group has been watching the FAA's treatment of Air Trek with great concern. The discrepancy between the FAA's Tampa inspectors and the New York-Atlanta team that grounded Air Trek suggests that "the FAA probably didn't do as much of their homework on this as they should have," Byer said. "If an operator is safe and doing everything according to the regs, they should not be grounded," Byer added