Questions linger in wake of AMI certificate action

 - February 26, 2008, 5:56 AM

Multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted to the FAA by AIN generated some additional information– but no big surprises–about the agency’s investigation and subsequent revocation of the charter certificate of AMI Jet Charter (AIN, November 2007, page 1). The material does not answer any lingering questions about the AMI situation, particularly why the agency took issue with AMI’s safety of operation and why it believed it might be able to refer AMI to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.

The FAA began investigating AMI Jet Charter last March, and while insiders suspected that the agency was focusing on operational control issues, the FAA would never comment about the nature of the investigation, nor did it even tell AMI personnel why it was conducting the investigation. AMI at the time was owned in part (49 percent) by TAG Aviation USA, a division of Switzerland-based TAG Holding.

Finally, on Oct. 4, 2007, the FAA issued an emergency order of suspension to AMI. AMI appealed the suspension to the NTSB, as was its right, but instead of responding to the appeal, the FAA revoked AMI’s charter certificate on October 12. AMI could have appealed further, but to avoid protracted litigation it chose to settle with the agency for a record civil penalty of $10 million. TAG Holding then decided to sell TAG Aviation USA, including AMI, to the Sentient Group.

AIN has repeatedly asked the FAA for interviews with top FAA officials to answer questions about why it shut down AMI. The FAA has refused all such requests.
The only response that the FAA ever gave to AIN’s requests was the following statement from the public affairs office: “The suspension was based on findings from an inspection the first week of October. The full investigation took seven months because we wanted to do a thorough investigation. After we issued the suspension, we concluded our deliberations on the findings from the entire investigation, withdrew the suspension and issued the revocation.”

In the FAA response to the FOIA request, most of the material comprises copies of the suspension and revocation notices and associated paperwork, along with a package of documents that shed no light on the AMI/FAA matter. The latter documents are copies of training records and so on.

AIN had asked the agency for copies of electronic files, including e-mail messages, but the FAA wrote, “We are withholding several electronic mail messages from disclosure under Exemption 5. Exemption 5 of the FOIA protects information that, if allowed to be released, would discourage open and frank discussions between agency employees that is helpful during an investigation and also would create confusion in those cases where recommendations and opinions are not adopted.”

The FAA’s response material did, however, include two new documents. These are submissions by FAA safety inspectors Henry Digiovanni and Donald Riley, both of whom work for the FAA’s Southwest Region Special Emphasis Team. This team is a key player in the series of special emphasis inspections the agency is conducting on all charter operators in the U.S. AIN has submitted a FOIA request regarding the special emphasis team efforts but the FAA has not responded beyond acknowledging the original request.

Digiovanni’s and Riley’s submissions are actually responses to AMI’s petition to the NTSB, when AMI was trying to appeal the suspension of its charter certificate. There are no smoking guns in the two inspectors’ submissions, but they do provide more detail about why they believe that AMI was violating FAA regulations: specifically that it had ceded operational control of AMI flights to its part-owner, TAG Aviation USA.

The investigation of TAG that began last March, for example, raised the operational control issue with AMI charter operations. Based on an on-site inspection of AMI’s Burlingame, Calif. headquarters, Digiovanni wrote, “Including the review of documents and personnel interviews–and ramp inspection of aircraft, the FAA determined that questions existed with regard to AMIJC’s operational control. In particular, questions arose regarding TAG’s control over flights ostensibly operated under AMIJC’s certificate.”

Digiovanni reviewed AMI’s petition to the NTSB, specifically regarding airworthiness issues, and he did not agree with AMI’s claims. The main point of Digiovanni’s review was that AMI was “incapable of producing records required by Part 135 to demonstrate that AMI had conducted flights with airworthy aircraft and that the aircraft had been properly released.” Much of this argument revolved around whether or not records had been produced in a timely fashion.

“The failure of AMIJC to timely produce these records negatively impacts the FAA’s ability to ensure the safety of the flying public.” Digiovanni concluded, “I believe AMIJC’s operations would pose an ongoing and unacceptable risk to aviation safety unless it could show that it is in compliance with Part 135.” Riley used similar language in his submission, but provided a little more detail in refuting AMI’s claims.
Neither submission, however, addresses the question of whether there was a serious safety issue that was causing a risk of physical harm to AMI passengers. Nothing that the FAA has published or said about this situation supports any such conclusion, and the agency still refuses to discuss the safety aspect or any other aspect of the suspension and revocation of AMI’s charter certificate.

It has been suggested that had TAG not agreed to pay the $10 million civil penalty, the FAA could have referred AMI to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, but again, the FAA would not say what it was that AMI might have done to warrant DOJ scrutiny."

At this point, it does not seem that more light will be shed on the agency’s motives. AIN still has active FOIA requests in the hopper, however, and if more material becomes available, we will report on the results.