Pilot Counsel

AOPA expands legal plan

August 1, 1995

Many of you are already members of the AOPA Legal Services Plan. The plan is available exclusively to AOPA members, and it has been very successful in terms of member participation and satisfaction.

But we are not content to rest on our laurels. We continue to look for ways to improve and expand the plan and to meet members' needs.

The plan has been providing counseling and legal representation in FAA enforcement matters, counseling after an accident, and in connection with the failure of alcohol and drug testing, coverage for federal tax matters, and even a free half-hour consultation on any other aviation legal matter.

Effective immediately, the plan is expanded to address FAA medical certification matters, hangar and tie-down agreements, and aircraft rental or leaseback agreements. It also covers, for the first time, flight engineers. And, the hourly rate paid to attorneys has been increased.

The increase in fees to members to accommodate the increase in coverage is only a few dollars, and the total fee remains very modest. If you exercise only private pilot privileges, the cost in addition to your basic AOPA membership dues is $26 per year, up from $22. This is the fee even if you hold a commercial or airline transport pilot certificate, so long as you are exercising only private privileges. It's the fee for students, too.

If you fly commercially — as a flight instructor, corporate pilot, or flight engineer, for example — the cost is $52 per year, up from $48. For pilots engaged in operations that require an ATP certificate, the cost is $99, up from $96.

We cannot here give all the details, but a full plan description is available by calling or writing to AOPA. A full description is provided to each person joining the plan.

This is an "open panel" plan, which means that when the coverage provides legal representation, you may use an AOPA panel attorney or you may choose any other attorney. The AOPA panel is made up of more than 800 lawyers, virtually all of whom are AOPA members (and so, pilots) and who are required to attend AOPA- sponsored legal seminars periodically to improve their skills in these specialized cases.

If you use a panel attorney, AOPA's payment goes directly to the attorney. If you use a non-panel attorney, you will make your own financial arrangement with your lawyer, and the plan will reimburse you the lawyer's fees, to a maximum of $120 per hour (just increased from $110 — another plan enhancement), up to a maximum number of hours based on AOPA's experience, intended to fully cover the services. Expenses not included in the attorney's fixed or hourly rate are not covered by the plan.

The backbone of the plan has been the defense of FAA enforcement actions to suspend or revoke a pilot's certificate. If a plan member finds himself or herself in a situation where guidance is needed, help is only a collect call away. The plan provides unlimited telephone consultation regarding any incident or accident. The earlier, the better. The early phase of a legal crisis is a critical stage at which guidance is needed about interpretation of the regulations, filing a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System report or an accident report, responding to a letter of investigation, and any other matters that require early attention. This consultation is available during normal working hours with enforcement counselors at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland.

If the situation develops into a full-blown enforcement case, the plan will pay for you to hire a lawyer.

Once you have hired a lawyer, the plan pays a panel attorney's fees in full at the initial stages. Coverage for a non-panel attorney is limited to eight hours. Most cases are resolved at this stage.

At the appeal stages, the plan will pay 80 percent of the attorney's fees. For non-panel attorneys, there are limits of 25 hours and 15 hours for an initial appeal and a further appeal, respectively. AOPA would prefer to pay 100 percent of these fees as well, but the plan is designed to give the member a small stake in ensuring that cases are not appealed all the way just because the legal fees are paid.

The new coverage for cases in which the FAA seeks to revoke or suspend a pilot's medical certificate is the same as described above for any enforcement action. Those of you who follow this column will guess where this idea came from — the Bob Hoover medical case. This kind of problem can hit suddenly and unexpectedly, and cost a lot to defend.

This new coverage does not provide legal representation where FAA "denies" an application for a medical certificate (different from "suspension" and "revocation," which are covered). A moment's reflection suggests why this is so. The financial integrity of the plan would be jeopardized if a person could join knowing that he or she will be denied a medical certificate. For as little as $26 a person could buy $2,000 to $3,000 worth of representation. But, we recognize that there is a real need here, and we have added new coverage for unlimited consultation about medical certificate applications and denials. This consultation could include helping a plan member secure counsel, if needed, and some guidance to retained attorneys who may be unfamiliar with these proceedings.

Also, the plan now provides for legal review and critique of some documents with which our experience tells us members need help. The documents are:

  • A hangar or tiedown agreement that an airport or a fixed base operator has asked a plan member to sign.
  • An aircraft rental agreement that a plan member has been asked to execute.
  • An aircraft leaseback agreement that a plan member wants to enter into with a fixed base operator.

Each year, a plan member is entitled to a review of each of these documents.

In addition, the plan now provides legal representation if the FAA appeals to a federal appeals court a case that a plan member won before the National Transportation Safety Board — a new authority given to the FAA.

This plan is designed for the active pilot and aircraft owner. We have attempted to keep the fees as modest as practicable. We hope that you will participate.