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Walden defends Mercy Flights from outlandish federal fine

September 3, 2010

Greg Walden: Absurd fine on Mercy Flights is Exhibit A for out-of-control government
— Walden asks Transportation Secretary LaHood for official explanation
By Congressman Greg Walden

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) yesterday told Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in a letter he is disappointed by the “heavy-handed” $30,000 fine of Mercy Flights for using the word “our.”

Mercy Flights, a non-profit and the nation’s longest serving air ambulance operator, was punished for an infraction unrelated to safety or hazardous conditions. Their offense, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which levied the fine, was using the pronoun “our” on its website and other company literature when referring to an air ambulance helicopter that it operates.

While Mercy Flights has exclusive use of the helicopter, pays all the costs of maintaining and operating the helicopter, and employs all the medical staff that work on the helicopter, the pilots and mechanics are controlled by BTS LLC.

So, the FAA decided the use of “our helicopter” in Mercy Flights’ literature constituted an act of deceiving the public, and slapped them with a $30,000 fine without even the opportunity to change the wording.

“Since when did the FAA become the grammar police? This is the kind of nuance that only bureaucrats could love,” Rep. Walden said. “It is obvious that Mercy Flights wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. It is beyond me why the FAA would think that this exceedingly minor word choice merits such a severe penalty. Mercy Flights provides an essential service and creates good jobs to southern Oregon. This is Exhibit A for excessive government control.”

In the letter to Secretary LaHood, Rep. Walden says he was “shocked and disappointed” to learn of the FAA’s action.

“Let me be clear in that Mercy Flights did not contact me regarding this matter,” Walden writes in the letter. “Rather, I share the frustration of many of my constituents in southern Oregon who have contacted me to express their concerns about the apparent mistreatment of Mercy Flights by a federal agency once this matter was reported in the media.

Rep. Walden said he wants answers for the FAA’s decision to jump straight to a fine without even working with Mercy Flights to identify a non-punitive solution.

“I would appreciate you informing me of the details of FAA’s enforcement investigation into this matter and explaining why the FAA chose to levy such an unreasonable fine on Mercy Flights without even affording it the opportunity to immediately modify the language in question in its promotional materials or comply with a non-punitive cease and desist order.”

The full text of the letter that Rep. Walden sent to Secretary LaHood is below:

August 31, 2010

The Honorable Ray LaHood
Secretary
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20590

Dear Secretary LaHood,

I appreciate that the core mission of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to ensure the safety of all aspects of air transport.  However, I was shocked and disappointed to learn of the heavy-handed action recently taken by the FAA against Mercy Flights Inc., the nation’s longest serving air ambulance operator, located in Medford, Oregon for an infraction that was unrelated to safety or hazardous operations.

The FAA is extracting a $30,000 civil penalty from Mercy Flights, a non-profit first responder that serves southern Oregon and northern California, for using the pronoun “our” when referring to an air ambulance helicopter (N131AE) in its newsletters, other printed material, and website.  It is my understanding that Mercy Flights has exclusive use of, pays all the costs of maintaining and operating, and employs and oversees the medical staff used to respond to medical emergencies that fly on the helicopter.  It even holds the State of Oregon ambulance license for the aircraft.

As I understand it, the FAA imposed this steep fine on the grounds that Mercy Flights was deceiving the public regarding the air ambulance helicopter because, although Mercy Flights has exclusive use of the aircraft, the helicopter’s pilots and mechanics are controlled by BTS LLC.  It is clear that Mercy Flights did not intend to act deceptively or mislead patients, the public or regulators with respect to operational control of the air ambulance helicopter, proven by the fact that the aircraft in question has always bared clear markings which indicate that BTS LLC is the aircraft’s operator.

Let me be clear in that Mercy Flights did not contact me regarding this matter.  Rather, I share the frustration of many of my constituents in southern Oregon who have contacted me to express their concerns about the apparent mistreatment of Mercy Flights by a federal agency once this matter was reported in the media.  As a non-profit organization, Mercy Flights provides life-saving medical care and transport to all patients regardless of ability to pay, or if they have health insurance or not.  Unfortunately, the fine it must remit to the FAA for a harmless error adversely impacts this important community resource fighting to provide emergency services during these difficult economic times.

I would appreciate you informing me of the details of FAA’s enforcement investigation into this matter and explaining why the FAA chose to levy such an unreasonable fine on Mercy Flights without even affording it the opportunity to immediately modify the language in question in its promotional materials or comply with a non-punitive cease and desist order.

I look forward to your response.

Best regards,
W
GREG WALDEN
Member of Congress

CC: J. Randolph Babbitt, FAA Administrator

  
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