Air Care Alliance: The Voice of Public Benefit Flying

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Thousands of pilots are members of Public Benefit Flying organizations and volunteer to make flights for everything from documenting environmental degradation to providing free transport to patients for medical treatment. The organization that helps all of them in their work is the Air Care Alliance.

One of the ongoing bright spots in the world of public perception of general aviation is the growing recognition that pilots are quietly volunteering their time, skills and aircraft to make flights that benefit others. The purposes of the flights vary widely—they may help many people at once, such as through documentation of environmental degradation, or one person at a time, as when a patient is given free transport for medical treatment, or a Civil Air Patrol volunteer pilot searches for a downed airplane or missing person; they even help non-humans as organizations transport abandoned pets at risk of being euthanized to adoptive homes.

This vast mix of charitable flying falls under the common heading of Public Benefit Flying (PBF). Over the last 30 years, organizations have formed to coordinate between people who need what PBF can provide and pilots who want to help others. Not surprisingly, even in the world of people who came together to help others, there has been turbulence. For some time, there was no centralized location for someone who needed medical transportation or was concerned about a local environmental issue to call to get help. The sad fact that it was not unusual for a PBF medical transport organization that was unable to meet a flight request would simply refuse it rather than pass it along to another group in the area that might be able to make the flight.

A Need For Information and Coordination

PBF organizations facing questions on insurance coverage or minimum experience requirements for their volunteer pilots had no organized way of finding out if other groups had dealt with similar problems; so many were using up a lot of time of their volunteers working out answers to questions that had already been solved by other groups.

The Air Care Alliance is Formed

To address the problem, a conference of PBF organizations was held at AOPA headquarters in 1990. The result was the formation of the Air Care Alliance (ACA), often referred to as the “Voice of Public Benefit Flying.” Its role has evolved into that of an umbrella and support organization for all PBF groups. It holds an annual conference where PBF organization officers and members get together to exchange ideas and solve problems they have been facing. There is more about the conference below.

Over the years the ACA has worked to assist PBF organizations in such ways as arranging for a distinct callsign for use with ATC: “Compassion.” It is filed with a flight plan and used with controllers to advise that the flight is a public benefit flight, but is not carrying someone at risk medically (for which the “Lifeguard” callsign is used).

The Air Care Alliance’s website is set up to assist people who need the type of airlift that a PBF can supply. A person seeking to transport dogs from a shelter that is going to kill them to families that want to adopt them can locate PBF organizations in the geographic area that may be able to help. A cancer patient needing specialized treatment two states away, but unable to afford transport, can go to the ACA website, find and contact medical transport PBF organizations in the area. A side effect of the clearinghouse work being done by the ACA is more cooperation between PBFs—if one is unable to provide a flight (sadly, demand always outstrips supply), it is likely to work with the person in need to find transport through another PBF group.

Pilots who learn about public benefit flying and want to volunteer can also go to the ACA website to find out about groups working in their areas. There is no requirement that a pilot just volunteer with one PBF organization—many do volunteer flying for the Civil Air Patrol, medical transport and conservation PBF groups. It’s often the case that a pilot will get to know two or three PBF organizations in his or her area and volunteer for the one that has the best fit in terms of types of flights made and personality of the organization.

Regulatory Issues

The Air Care Alliance has helped get the word out to PBF organizations regarding the status of regulations affecting volunteer pilots and regularly meets with officials in Washington, D.C. to support legislation and regulatory efforts that will help PBF. For example, in the 1990s, the FAA decided that if a pilot took a tax deduction for aircraft rental or fuel used on a volunteer flight, that deduction was “compensation,” making the flight an illegal Part 135 operation. The ACA met with the FAA, pointed out the value of public benefit flying and that the IRS recognizes such value when donated flights are made for nonprofit organizations and allows a tax deduction. The FAA changed its interpretation and now allows a tax deduction for direct operating costs of a PBF flight made in support of a recognized nonprofit organization. (In general, if the pilot owns the airplane, he or she may deduct the cost of fuel, oil and ramp fees for the flight; if the pilot is renting the airplane, she or he may deduct the cost of the rental and ramp fees.)

Fuel Reimbursement

As the cost of avgas has increased at a rate far outstripping inflation the challenge of finding pilots who can afford to volunteer to make public benefit flights has increased radically. A few PBF groups approached the FAA seeking to obtain waivers them to reimburse their volunteer pilots for fuel burned on flights in support of organizations—otherwise, reimbursing the pilot for fuel is considered compensation and requires operation under Part 135, not 91. The FAA agreed to three or four waivers, but with terms that were so draconian and expensive that almost no pilot even tried to take advantage of the waiver. The waivers required extensive record-keeping, no owner-pilot performed maintenance on the airplane, overhaul or replacement of the engine and prop at TBO and checkrides—making the operation essentially Part 135 Lite. It was much cheaper for the pilot to simply pay for fuel than to try to comply with the waiver and get reimbursed.

PBF organizations and the ACA went to Congress and got bipartisan support for a Bill that would allow fuel reimbursement for volunteer flights in support of PBF organizations. President Obama signed it into law. For a brief time, fuel reimbursement was allowed. However, the law also allowed the FAA to place regulations on the process. The FAA took action saying the previously used waiver requirements would be become the new procedures for pilots to qualify for fuel reimbursement from their PBF organizations—once again bringing fuel reimbursement to a screeching halt.

The ACA has gone to the FAA and is working with it to attempt to bring some sanity to the fuel reimbursement issue.

Safety

In the wake of a few fatal crashes of flights conducted by volunteer pilots in support of PBF organizations, word came down from the NTSB that it was urging the FAA to regulate Public Benefit Flying and organizations. The Air Care Alliance immediately put out the word to all PBF organizations that they needed to re-evaluate their in-house approach to operational safety. ACA board members met with the NTSB to discuss safety issues pertinent to volunteer pilot operations. The result was that the ACA responded directly to the safety issues the NTSB had recognized. This lead to the ACA working with the AOPA and the Air Safety Foundation to create an excellent on-line, interactive safety course, “Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion.” Completing it has become a requirement to become a volunteer pilot with most PBF organizations. The NTSB has responded to the ACA’s work by dropping its demand for regulation.

Awards

Since 2003, the ACA has partnered with the National Aeronautic Association to host the annual Public Benefit Flying Awards to recognize significant contributions to Public Benefit flying by individuals and organizations. Dozens of awards have been presented at the annual “Above and Beyond” awards ceremony held each year in our country’s Capitol.

2014 ACA Conference

The annual Air Care Alliance Conference will be held on April 24 and 25 in Blue Bell (outside Philadelphia), Pennsylvania. It will feature speakers and seminars on issues faced by individuals and organizations involved in public benefit flying. It’s an opportunity to learn how pilots can use their skills to help others and for PBF organizations to meet with others to solve common problems and enhance their abilities to carry out their goals.

Rick Durden is the Features/News Editor of AVweb and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual Or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Volume I.