Pilot Counsel

Legal services plan: an anniversary

October 1, 2003

How time flies! It was 20 years ago in this column that we announced the beginning of the AOPA Legal Services Plan. Since then the plan has grown to almost 70,000 participants, the coverages of the plan have been expanded, and grateful thousands of members have been helped with their aviation-related legal problems, all at very modest fees.

Today, as we look back, we can see that the original reason we needed the plan, FAA enforcement, has become even more important. Here is how we announced it in June 1983: "Over the years in this column, we have related how easily, inadvertently, and oftentimes innocently a member can get into trouble with the FAA. Flying is so heavily regulated, with rules covering even the most finite details, that the most conscientious pilot can run into problems. The consequences have been loss of licenses, sometimes fines, and always the embarrassment and hassle of dealing with the matter. What has struck us as unfair is that, more often than not, a member suffered the penalty because the cost of defending the matter outweighed the penalty involved. After all, how much can a member afford to spend for legal fees to defend a 30-day or a 60-day suspension if he or she uses a pilot certificate just for sport or recreation? How much can a person spend defending a $250 civil penalty? It seems to us that the solution is to spread the risk over a large segment of our membership to protect the few who may stumble." (See " Washington Counsel: A Legal Service Program for AOPA Members," June 1983 Pilot.)

From the beginning the plan has provided counseling and legal representation in FAA enforcement matters. Today, with the proliferation of notams and temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), pilots inadvertently straying into restricted airspace, and penalties much, much worse, they are still the major benefits under the plan.

The plan has gradually grown to cover much more than just FAA enforcement. Very early on, the coverage was expanded to include such things as counseling after an aircraft accident, counseling in connection with alcohol and drug testing, and coverage for federal tax matters. A free half-hour consultation on any other aviation legal matter not specifically covered was added, which has turned out to be very popular.

About midstream, in 1995, we expanded the plan to address FAA medical certificate suspensions and revocations, review of hangar and tiedown agreements, and review of aircraft rental and leaseback agreements. The plan also expanded to provide coverage for U.S. Customs enforcement matters, and coverage for aircraft purchase and sales transactions.

And we are not finished yet. As we continue to analyze the needs of our members for counseling and legal representation in matters affecting their flying, and as we determine that the coverage can be reasonably offered within the present fee structure or with some modest increase, we will consider expanding the plan.

The fees are modest. If you exercise only private pilot privileges (even if you hold a commercial or ATP certificate), the cost in addition to your basic AOPA membership dues is only $26 per year. This is also the cost for student and recreational pilots. If you fly commercially — as a flight instructor, for example, corporate pilot, or flight engineer — the cost is $52 per year. For pilots engaged in operations that require an ATP certificate, the cost is still a reasonable $99 per year. The fees are ordinarily paid with the AOPA membership dues payment, and the plan coverage is concurrent with the AOPA membership year.

A neat feature is that it 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 600 lawyers from around the country, virtually all of whom are AOPA members, and also pilots, and who are required to attend AOPA-sponsored legal seminars periodically to maintain their skills in handling these types of matters.

If you use a panel attorney, AOPA's payment goes directly to the attorney. For most coverage, the panel attorney agrees to accept a fee up to the hourly rate set by the plan, and to accept payment up to the maximum hours allotted as payment in full for the hourly services given, even if they exceed the allotted time. If you use a nonpanel 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 $145 per hour (which also has been gradually increased over the years) up to a maximum number of hours for specified tasks. The maximum hours allowed are based on AOPA's experience on what it has usually taken to provide the service. If the actual hours exceed the maximum allowed, you are responsible for the excess when using a nonpanel attorney. Expenses not normally covered in the attorney's (panel or nonpanel) fixed or hourly rate are not covered by the plan.

So, on this twentieth anniversary, I thought it would be worth this look-back and reminder of how far we have come. In the space of this column, I can't provide all of the details of the plan, including the specific wording of the coverages, limitations, conditions, and exclusions. You can get a full plan description by calling AOPA or checking AOPA Online.

For more information on AOPA's Legal Services Plan, visit the Web site ( www.aopa.org/info/certified/lsp.html).

John S. Yodice