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May 28, 2010

Signs of positive intervention from FAA bring hope

It’s not only the commercial fishing and tourism industries suffering from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  Surprisingly, companies who normally assist with disaster response are being hit hard by restrictions BP is putting on the airspace above the spill area.  BP is barring regular customers from doing business with these area aviation businesses, including members of the Seaplane Pilots Association, even when BP is not footing the bill.

Local commercial emergency services pilots are regularly being denied authorization for flights into a very large TFR over the Gulf for legitimate, customer-paid flights of media, photographers, scientists, public officials, and regular customers involved in the oil spill response.   BP frequently tells local officials and media that they may only enter the TFR in Coast Guard or BP-provided helicopters.  In one remarkable instance, an environmental scientist, hired by BP to guide them in studying and lessening the impact of the spill on fragile barrier islands and their inhabitants, has been told he cannot use a seaplane to land offshore of these islands, but must instead land on the wildlife refuge property in a BP helicopter!  In addition, non-emergency operations such as delivering passengers to fishing charter boats and air tours have been interrupted by the extensive TFR, causing additional loss of income.

According to Rhonda Panepinto, co-owner of Southern Seaplane, Inc. (, in Belle Chasse, LA, “Clients to whom we have provided seaplane service for years such as ES&H, the University of New Orleans Geology Department, and local government agencies have been recently been told by BP that our services are off limits for their use in the cleanup response.  According to BP,” Panepinto states, “the reason these companies were denied the use of our aircraft is ‘single engine aircraft are not deemed as safe according to BP standards and that only twin engine aircraft are permissible.’ ”

Southern Seaplane has supplied various commercial aviation services in the New Orleans area for 54 years and built its business on servicing the oil fields.  SSI enjoys contracts with major oil companies including Exxon using the same single engine aircraft which BP finds unacceptable.   Although Exxon also usually bans single engine land aircraft, they and other oil companies recognize the floats on a seaplane as an equivalent safety margin to that of a second engine.   Even a call from Exxon to their BP aviation operations counterpart on SSI’s behalf was to no avail.

Yet Part 91 operators who are not providing commercial flights (important to the news media) are being allowed to conduct their normal business within the TFR, having been issued a permanent discrete code at the establishment of the TFR.

Local aviation companies assert that BP is in violation of Louisiana Fair Trade Practice regulations, has slandered their reputations in the aviation and oil field industries, and are taking advantage of FAA regulations to unduly control access to the oil spill area.  The TFR area has also been expanded to a very large area which includes the entire Louisiana coastline, barrier islands, and large portions of several parishes.  Panepinto asserts that “the reason for this massive TFR is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press.”

Southern Seaplane, SPA, and others have repeatedly pled with the FAA, Coast Guard and BP to be allowed to continue normal business, and conduct disaster response services as they have done for over 50 years.  Signs of hope appeared late this week when a new high level FAA official from Washington contacted Southern Seaplane, stating his intent to help them “get back to doing business”.  An FAA-led meeting is scheduled for Saturday in Louisiana with the FAA, BP and Southern Seaplane to try to address the matter in a reasonable way.

SPA is in regular contact with Southern Seaplane, and is supporting their efforts to work with federal officials toward a successful resolution of this matter.  This will allow all qualified aviation businesses in the Gulf region to continue doing business with their regular customers and to bring their valuable assets to bear on this massive disaster.  Updates will be posted on this blog.

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