Torqued: Fallout from the TEB Challenger overrun crash

 - October 2, 2006, 1:33 PM

Last month we reported that, in the fallout from the February 2 Challenger overrun at Teterboro (TEB), the FAA levied a fine of almost $2 million against Platinum Jet and its principal officer and owner. I requested a copy of the action so that I could review it myself.

When I received the material I was really surprised by the number of pages in the complaint. Excluding the normal notices that the FAA includes to satisfy the law, I found 27 pages of allegations and alleged violations of the Federal Air Regulations (FARs).

As is often the case, the operator was under the radar of most FAA inspectors, who may have believed that all involved in the operation of business jets have a strong interest in safety and desire to comply with all the FARs. At one point I shared that view, but nine years of reviewing FAA enforcement actions with the NTSB has changed my opinion.

The news about the operator’s alleged violations could not have come at a worse time, with a number of government agencies contemplating restrictions at business aviation airports. In fact, the Platinum Jet accident played its part in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s attempting to introduce further restrictions on aircraft operations from Teterboro Airport. The FAA has indicated that it will not support the Port Authority action, and so far nothing has happened. But that doesn’t mean that this is the last we will hear of additional restrictions.

FAR Violations

The most important part of the report is the FAA’s allegations about the operator’s non-compliance with the FARs. The first thing that jumps out at you is the sheer number of alleged FAR violations, and it will take some time to go through all of them to get a good feel for what the FAA is thinking.

One thing already clear from the enforcement action, however, is that this operation certainly seems to be having a great deal of difficulty complying with the FARs. The enforcement action cites problems complying with a number of FARs in Part 91, Part 119 and Part 135 covering both operations and maintenance.

A number of the allegations involve issues that would go undetected without a thorough audit. The inspector would also need to know about the special arrangement between the certificate holder and the charter management company, which was actually holding itself out as a certified air charter operator.

In fact, I noticed that this company was still listed on a reputable business aircraft Web site as a charter operator quite some time after the Teterboro accident. I have also seen articles in other publications that have mentioned that it may be common for operators to lease the use of their certificate. It has also been mentioned that some may also share the use of a certificate.

A number of the allegations deal with noncompliance of pilot training and operational standards that were put into place after previous accidents and are now recognized as sound business practices.

There is also a considerable number of alleged maintenance violations. Since the differences between a Part 91 operation and a Part 135 operation are quite dramatic and the maintenance and inspection requirements ratchet up considerably, it is easy to see how inspectors could overlook such violations. This type of overlooked action could easily put the travelers on these aircraft at greater risk than they may have believed.

The last area of concern is about the issue of loading/weight-and-balance. In January 2003 we had a wake-up call on this subject after a center-of-gravity accident cost a number of lives and the entire industry was reviewing weight-and-balance programs.

My initial thoughts about the Teterboro accident and the operator’s practices favored what the industry was saying in defense of what was believed to be a good Part 135 business aircraft charter operation. In fact, some trade associations that I hold in high regard also praised this operation for its innovation.

My initial thoughts now appear to be wrong. What I see now is an operation that disregarded many rules that are expensive to comply with and in so doing gave itself a competitive advantage in the charter marketplace. One of the effects of such practices is to lower the standards for all operators.

The High Cost of Gaining an Advantage

To remain competitive, others will also be required to get creative within their operation in a bid to lower their operating costs. One avenue was the creative use of leasing or sharing of certificates. Some retired FAA inspectors have told me that it would have been unlikely for them to have discovered such arrangements on a routine surveillance visit to any operator before the New Jersey accident shed some light on this practice.

There is one more unique aspect to this proposed civil penalty that many in the industry will be watching, and that is the outcome for the aircraft themselves. The FAA action names the aircraft as well as the operator and the principal. As a result, if the others named in the penalty find a way not to pay, the asset that is the aircraft could be liquidated to pay the civil penalty. The consequence is that the leasing companies may lose their assets. Time will tell what this will really mean for our industry.