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Feds fine local nonprofit for referring to helicopter it uses as "our"

Aug. 26--Mercy Flights, the nation's oldest air ambulance operator, has run afoul of the U.S. Transportation Department.

The Medford-based nonprofit was run through the Federal ringer and fined $30,000, not because of safety infractions, hazardous operations or any other dreadful offense one might speculate about when government agents take aim.

Mercy Flights was taken to task because it used the word "our." That's as in "our medical helicopter," "our helicopter" and "our planes."

Mercy Flights operates two fixed-wing aircraft with all the required FAA certificates. In 1994, Mercy Flights and Timberland Helicopters began joint operations. Then in 1998, Brim Aviation, Timberland and Siskiyou Transportation formed BTS LLC and acquired a helicopter for exclusive use by Mercy Flights.

"We formed a company to simply operate the aircraft with its own FAA certificate as a stand-alone," said Mark Gibson, general manager of Siskiyou Transportation and past president of Helicopter Association International.

For the next 16 years, Mercy Flights operated its planes and called in the BTS helicopter and crew when necessary.

"We paid for costs of flying; basically leased the helicopter, pilots, mechanics and support of Timberland," said Mercy Flights General Manager Ken Parson. "We have exclusive use, and we were the only reason they bought the helicopter, and that's when we began using the 'we' and 'our.' "

According to the Transportation Department consent order signed by Deputy General Counsel Rosalind "Lindy" Knapp, Mercy Flights broke laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices in the sales of air transportation by using personal pronouns.

The Office of Aviation Enforcement Proceedings found: "For a period during 2009, the Air Services page accessed under the Services tab of Mercy Flights' Internet homepage stated, 'Mercy Flights staffs the helicopter with a pilot, registered nurse and paramedic, trained and equipped to handle most critical emergencies within a 150-mile radius of Medford, Oregon.' Further, the Frequently Asked Questions page of the Mercy Flights website makes prominent note of '[o]ur Emergency Medical Transport Helicopter Ambulance serves Southern Oregon ... and Northern California.' "

Knapp was in a meeting on Wednesday and unavailable for comment.

The Enforcement Office added: "In a similar fashion, newsletters available on Mercy Flights' website, such as a Spring 2009 newsletter entitled 'Into the Night,' made repeated references to 'our medical helicopter,' 'our helicopter,' or 'our planes,' in a manner that implied ownership and operation by Mercy Flights of a fleet of vehicles that included at least one rotary-wing aircraft."

Mercy Flights isn't alone in its new-found worry about personal possessive pronouns.

In April 2009, the Transportation Department dinged Angel MedFlight Worldwide Air Ambulance Services of Scottsdale, Ariz., for $10,000.

"We are very cognizant of that word now," said Angel MedFlight Chief Executive Officer Kelly LoCascio. "We're all in the same position, holding our breaths."

Web content has to be posted with care, she said. "Word for word and whole-heartedly processed."

The bottom line for operators is avoiding legal confrontation.

"The original fine they proposed was significantly more ($40,000)," Parson said. "I met with our corporate attorney, and he said if we tried to appeal or fight it we would spend that much in legal fees to fight the federal government. Their letter says if you contest or complain about it, they won't honor the $40,000 and would assess full damages of $25,000 a day. So we negotiated a settlement."

Ultimately, the Transportation Department said it would collect $15,000 of the fine and track Mercy Flight's marketing, and would require immediate payment of the whole $30,000 fine if it detected another violation in the next 12 months.

Parson said he didn't know why the Transportation Department didn't simply tell Mercy Flights to change its wording when it was first contacted late last fall.

"I don't have a good answer; everybody was pretty frustrated," said Parson, whose nonprofit has lost money two years running because of decreased insurance reimbursements and reduced Medicare and Medicaid payouts.

"It's not like we've been misleading people or selling tickets for service we don't provide."

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