Senator Leahy of Vermont is pushing for a law that would insulate volunteer pilot organizations (such as Angel Flight West) from liability for injury the organization’s pilots cause to its passengers. If the bill passes, it means that those injured by the negligence of an organization’s pilot would have no recourse against the organization. Rather, the passenger would be limited to seeking compensation against the pilot — regardless of how minimal the pilot’s insurance.Angel flight

The trouble is that those who decide to fly with a charitable organization usually do so because they are impressed by the organization, not by the pilot. The passengers don’t select the pilot who, in some cases, they may not even meet the pilot until arriving at the airport for the flight. They have no way of checking out the pilot’s qualifications or competence level. Instead, they trust the organization to do that.

It doesn’t seem right for an organization to turn its back on an injured passenger or his family after an accident. Yet, that’s what the bill would allow.  

The text of the proposed law is as follows: 

Liability Protection for Volunteer Pilot Nonprofit Organizations

A volunteer pilot nonprofit organization that flies for public benefit, the staff, mission coordinators, officers, and directors (whether volunteer or otherwise) of such nonprofit organization shall not be liable for harm caused to any person by a volunteer of such nonprofit organization while such volunteer–

(A) is operating an aircraft in furtherance of the purpose of such nonprofit organization;
(B) is properly licensed for the operation of such aircraft; and
(C) has certified to such nonprofit organization that such volunteer has insurance covering the volunteer’s operation of such aircraft."

  • aviator

    Mike, why *should* the organization be held responsible for the actions of the pilot? Deep pockets, perhaps?

    If the argument is that the pax don’t have access to the pilot’s credentials before the flight, then let’s fix that. Allow the passenger to make an informed decision by disclosing well before the flight who the pilot is, the tail number of the aircraft to be used and what, if any, enforcement actions the pilot has experienced (and accident history of the plane).

  • Mike Danko


    I agree with you, in theory. The problem is that, as a practical matter, the passengers are not capable of making an informed decision. Regardless of how much information they are provided, they end up having to trust the organization.

    Of course, the passengers didn’t think to ask the pilot if he had ever flown the 210 before. Why would they?

    In fact, the pilot had never been checked out in any 210, ever, but had flown an Arrow. As you might imagine, it was a dicey experience for all concerned. It’s unlikely those passengers will never get in a small plane again.

    The bone-headed pilot in that case showed up wearing a cap with the organization’s logo. The passengers trusted him because of that. That’s just the way it is.

  • aviator

    In your example, I’m not sure how the organization could have stopped the renegade pilot from flying. (Seems to me that they neither knew nor approved of his actions.) Or, to take it to your logical conclusion, been held responsible should the unthinkable have happened.

    I’m actually surprised that liability protection at the organizational level has taken so long.

    I’ve been an Angel Flight pilot. The system works well if all play by the rules. Bottom line is that pax place enormous trust in their pilots. The organization places enormous faith that pilots will do the right thing. And pilots have enormous responsibility to transport their passengers safely.

  • Mike Danko

    The problem is that the “chain of trust” is somewhat circular. Passengers wouldn’t trust just any pilot hanging out at the airport to fly them to where they needed to go. But they do trust the Angel Flight pilot because Angel Flight is a reputable organization and presumably wouldn’t have a pilot flying people around unless the pilot was top-notch. But the passenger’s trust in Angel Flight is misplaced because the organization does little more than itself trust the pilot and hope for the best.

    “Angel Flight does not investigate the qualifications of its pilots beyond checking to see that the pilot holds a current license. Not all licensed pilots are safe pilots. Angel Flight does not test its pilots, fly with them, interview them, or even meet them. Angel Flight does not require that its pilots be experienced. Angel Flight’s sole function is putting pilots who wish to volunteer their time and their aircraft in contact with those who may wish to fly with them. Angel Flight does not endorse its pilots, or represent that its member pilots are “good” or “safe.” Any licensed pilot — safe or unsafe — qualifies to be an Angel Flight pilot. ”

    At that point, it seems to me, it would be harder for a passenger to argue that Angel Flight should be held responsible for the negligence of its pilots.

  • aviator

    Well, Mike, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. I took exception to the third paragraph of your last post. If I may, let me dissect the sentences I disagree with.

    “Not all licensed pilots are safe pilots.” Stating the obvious as evidenced by high-time ATPs who’ve made careless mistakes resulting in death or injuries.

    “Angel Flight does not test its pilots, fly with them, interview them, or even meet them.”
    Simply not true. I was interviewed and photographed before I flew my first Angel Flight mission. Further, flight testing is, and should be, left to the feds or their designated examiners.

    “Angel Flight does not require that its pilots be experienced.”
    Again, just not true. The Angel Flight organization I flew for required a minimum of 300 hours and a current instrument rating. Said differently, a newly minted private pilot, or even a commercial pilot for that matter, wouldn’t qualify if they didn’t have the requisite hours and instrument rating.

    “Angel Flight does not endorse its pilots, or represent that its member pilots are “good” or “safe.””
    Fair enough, but I’ve yet to hear of *any* organization making such claims, including airlines (which have a much better safety record than general aviation).

    I understand your profession and understand your motives behind your opinion, but I’m very much in favor of passengers being allowed to make informed decisions. A pilots flight records (including failed checkrides) should be made available to all who are considering flying with him or her. Same for aircraft records. Technology allows it and this is the solution I believe we should be working toward.

  • Cloudesley Shovell

    If passengers want all the benefits that come with being a passenger on a common carrier, they can fly on a common carrier.

    If you impose upon volunteer organizations many of the legal burdens of being a common carrier, you will extinguish the difference, which is of course the provision of air transportation for free, and kill off the charity.

    Everything has a cost, whether the purchased for cash money or not. The cost of getting a free right on an aircraft is reduced ability to sue in the event of a mishap.

    How this is different than the risk people take every day when driving? Whether the at-fault driver who injures you is a Mercedes-driving millionaire with piles of insurance or an unlicensed driver with no insurance (or someone with only statutory minimums) is entirely out of a person’s control. If a person wants to avoid that risk, the only option is not to drive at all.

    If a person does not want to accept the cost of a “free” Angel flight, they can simply choose not to fly. Or the charity can simply choose to shut down if costs get too high. Why mess with something that’s working? Why not just mandate that common carriers provide “angel flight” services at free or reduced cost?

    Creating a legal regime that requires a third party to bear the burden of liability whenever someone is injured is not necessarily a goal that makes society better off. Life is full of risks, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. Rather than treating people as perpetual infants and children incapable of making everyday adult decisions (“the passengers are not capable of making an informed decision”), we ought to let them make their own choices and bear the consequences of those freely-made decisions, whether those consequences are beneficial or not.


  • Michael

    If it were up to me the pilot, not only Angel Flight or other charitable flying organization, would be indemnified. The pilot is offering his or her expensive aircraft time and valuable time in many cases to provide a humanitarian service. Accidents happen unfortunately but for this purpose the pilot should be held harmless for the greater public good that the flights provide.