The FAA has finally released its study of Part 135 air-taxi operators, mandated by Congress more than four years ago in the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21). Because it took the agency four years to publish the report–in part because of 9/11–the charter industry is questioning the value of the data.
Comprehensive revenue data from the air-taxi industry was not available when the FAA launched the study in 2000, so the agency used data on revenue and sales for Part 135 and air-taxi operators from the 1997 Economic Census and Dun and Bradstreet (D&B) sales estimates for 2000.
“Data limitations preclude developing a precise picture of the air-taxi industry and its activities,” the FAA said in the report. “This study integrates diverse data sources but could not necessarily align all measures.”
The agency identified a total of 2,891 air-taxi operators. Estimates of revenues for all Part 135 operators varied wildly, from census estimates of $4.4 billion in 2000 to D&B sales estimates totaling $12.7 billion. The FAA stated that further analysis showed that census data underestimates revenues while D&B data overstates sales.
The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), which helped develop the study, said the study demonstrated there is a lack of good data on the Part 135 accident rate.
NATA president Jim Coyne explained, “This is a serious problem. You cannot address safety concerns unless you have good data, and I think the DOT study shows without any doubt that we don’t have good data right now.”
The Part 135 Fleet
AIR-21 specified that the study include an analysis of the size and type of the aircraft fleet; relevant aircraft equipment; hours flown; utilization rates; safety record by various categories of use and aircraft type; sales revenues; and airports served by the air-taxi fleet.
The study included all cargo operations with aircraft having a payload of 7,500 pounds or less; all on-demand operations with rotorcraft; all on-demand passenger operations with airplanes of 30 or fewer passenger seats and a maximum payload of 7,500 pounds or less; scheduled passenger operations of fewer than five round trips per week on at least one route between two or more points, according to the published flight schedule; and aircraft operations with nine or fewer passenger seats and a payload of less than 7,500 pounds used in scheduled passenger operations (five or more round trips between two or more points) which can also fly under the on-demand regulations.
According to the Part 135 study, more than 60 percent of the air-taxi fleet is more than 20 years old, reflecting the large number of older single- and multi-engine piston airplanes in the fleet. About 6,000 of the approximately 11,000 air-taxi aircraft are turbine-powered.
While the rate of air-taxi accidents is declining, the number of annual fatalities has not fallen as rapidly. Existing estimates of air-taxi hours flown are likely too low, the study found, which alters accident rate estimates.
On-demand (air-charter) operations, including charter cargo, account for the largest portion of air-taxi operators, aircraft and revenues. And while cargo operations have the largest number of fatal accidents, passenger operations have the largest number of fatalities.
The DOT study noted that most Part 135 air-taxi firms are small in terms of numbers of aircraft operated, employees and revenue. Ninety percent have fewer than 10 aircraft, 25 employees and $5 million in revenue. But a small number of very large firms are also authorized to conduct Part 135 operations.
The principal data used to identify Part 135 air-taxi operators came from the FAA’s Operating Specification Subsystem (OPSS). Other FAA databases included the National Vital Information Subsystem and the 1999 and 2000 General Aviation Air Taxi Activity (and Avionics) Survey. External sources included the NTSB accident database, the Census Bureau’s 1997 Economic Census, D&B reports and others.
The FAA report said that it would be difficult for the agency to obtain improved data without mandatory reporting for the OPSS population of operators and aircraft. Implementation will likely require regulatory or statutory change, which would be subject to full regulatory analysis, the study noted.
Eric Byer, NATA vice president of government and industry affairs, agreed that the data in the report is outdated. “It took them six months to get the project going, another year to a year-and-a-half to get it finalized, then another two years to get it through the bureaucratic process,” he said. “But it’s a good first step.”
Byer said NATA will explore with the FAA and Congress the possibility of updating the study annually or biennially.