PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- An international air ambulance service based at the Charlotte County Airport has been shut down indefinitely by federal officials for numerous safety problems.
The Federal Aviation Administration made an emergency decision Friday to suspend Air Trek's carrier license, effectively closing the business until it changes its operation.
According to the FAA's emergency order, the company:
* Failed to abide by guidelines regulating weight on aircraft.
* Allowed unqualified pilots to command international flights.
* Did not give pilots proper rest and training.
* Did not maintain equipment on time.
* Did not perform timely inspections.
Dana Carr, who founded the company with his brother Wayne 30 years ago, said the company had not kept proper records, but followed federal safety guidelines and fixed the "clerical" errors that prompted the suspension.
He said the federal government had not questioned the safety of Air Trek's aircraft or the company's operations.
However, the first sentence of the suspension notice stated that agency officials "determined that an emergency exists related to safety in air commerce."
The suspension letter also said that Air Trek operated three flights that have crashed in the past three years, one of which killed six people.
Carr said the company immediately fixed the clerical problems when the FAA brought them to his attention after an inspection two weeks ago.
He said he is working with federal officials to lift the suspension and has filed an appeal.
But due to safety concerns, the FAA will not allow the company to operate until it can prove that it meets standards, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
With three propeller-driven aircraft and four jets, Air Trek transports sick or injured people between clinics and hospitals, sometimes in remote locations. The flights are both domestic and international.
The company employs about 50 people, including pilots and physicians, Carr said. He said the forced halt in business is a tremendous financial strain for Air Trek and its employees, who remain on the payroll, but are growing nervous about the future.
Carr would not say how much money the suspension is costing the company.
He blamed the negative attention, including an investigation into his business three months ago by the Department of Defense and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, on a bitter competitor.
The Department of Defense cannot comment on whether its investigation into Air Trek is active, said Gary Comerford, a public information officer for the agency.
When Air Trek's name is cleared, Carr said he will sue the competitor who complained to the Department of Defense for punitive damages.
Until then, Carr said he would not reveal the rival's name.
Air Trek does have critics. There is a lengthy online discussion board on Topix.net that is dedicated solely to bashing Air Trek.
Another Web site, hosted by the free service Angelfire.com, posts links to news reports related to Air Trek, including the fatal crash in Panama that killed four people from West Virginia, a passenger from Italy and a Panamanian on the ground.
Carr said the discussion board is also the handiwork of his competitor.
"That's made up of a combination of some disgruntled ex-employees and this competitor, and you notice that none of them are willing to put their name to anything," Carr said.