Helicopter safety hearing could bring GA problems

Do states have a right to control operations of emergency medical helicopters or is this role exclusive to the Federal Aviation Administration? With states eager to place restrictions on airports and flight paths, a decision favoring them could end up causing numerous problems for general aviation.

The question was the center of an April 22 Congressional hearing into the safety of helicopter medical emergency flights (HEMS), brought on by a spike in fatal accidents last year.

Reps. John Mica (R-FL) and Tom Petri (R-WI) asked for the hearing after last year’s eight fatal and five non-fatal accidents. Mica and Petri are ranking members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Aviation Subcommittee, respectively. Two bills have been introduced to give states more authority over helicopter emergency medical services. The bills would give states authority to regulate HEMS much as they regulate doctors and other medical services.

Testifying for the FAA, John Allen, director of flight standards, said the agency is taking steps to improve safety. Air ambulances, he said, operate under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1979, granting states rights to control prices, routes and services, but not safety or other operational rules. He said many of the HEMS companies operate in more than one state. To have 50 different state regimes addressing economic regulation could complicate the industry.

If states are granted rights to impose individual regulations on one segment of the industry, other segments may seek similar protection from competition, Allen pointed out. Rep. Mica echoed that concern in his opening statement. If HEMS were treated differently in terms of state versus federal oversight, he said, other sectors of aviation might feel justified in demanding their own carve-out of federal regulations.

Currently, HEMS operations come under Part 121 and 135 of Federal Aviation Regulations.

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