Two Part 135 air-taxi operators at opposite ends of the charter business spectrum, Skybird Aviation and The Air Group–both based at Van Nuys Airport (VNY) in Southern California–nevertheless have some common observations on today’s ever-evolving aviation security environment.
Jon Winthrop is president and CEO of The Air Group, one of the nation’s largest executive aircraft management and air charter companies. Norm Anderson is director of operations and COO of Skybird Aviation, a one-aircraft on-demand charter provider. When interviewed by AIN recently, both expressed equal skepticism that a “one size fits all” set of security mandates based on scheduled airline operations can be effective across the board for all passenger-carrying businesses.
They agreed that operators cannot begin to comply with the pending Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “12-5 Rule” until the agency actually publishes requirements and guidelines for implementation. Anderson said the proposed application of Part 121 security standards to Part 135 operators of aircraft with mtow exceeding 12,500 lb that board or discharge passengers in airport “sterile areas” is unlikely to affect Skybird directly. Its main effect, he predicted, will be on “FBOs with charter operations using large corporate aircraft. We don’t manage airplanes, we don’t fuel or repair airplanes, we do none of the FBO things–just charter.”
Anderson added, however, that the proposed rules as he understands them will directly affect operators at VNY, including Clay Lacy Aviation and The Air Group, who refer overflow or short-notice charter business to Skybird. “I understand that they will require things like secure cockpit doors, passenger screening, baggage X-ray and crew background checks.” Presumably, the entity that originally accepts the charter would be responsible for verifying passenger identities and baggage contents.
The Air Group, with 160 employees, manages 50 corporate aircraft and flies 39 charter airplanes, ranging from King Airs to BBJs, throughout the U.S. Winthrop said The Air Group already had a security plan in place before September 11, including strictly limited access to its ramp area. It has since been enhanced by a guarded vehicle entry gate and provisions for escorting visitors when they are anywhere near aircraft boarding or servicing areas.
Commenting on what he knew about the “12-5” rule at that time, Winthrop referred to unanswered questions like “fingerprinting. Who has to be fingerprinted and who will it be done by? These rules will be for airline airports. What about the others, the non-Part 121 airports? On many of the small fields you could be anybody and do anything. No one would know.”
As for a call issued days earlier for “heightened awareness” that terrorists might try to hijack general aviation aircraft, Winthrop responded, “We already do that. And we have ways of dealing with things.” He explained that security awareness “started for us with Desert Storm, and went up another level after September 11.” As for recently instituted security procedures, upon which he declined to elaborate, Winthrop said, “All the owners [of managed aircraft] thought it was great.”
Screening Passengers and Crew
He added that the vast majority of charter customers have willingly accepted the need for passenger screening: “A couple of our charter clients didn’t want to show ID, and security people for a high-profile customer were reluctant to show their IDs. They also objected to having their firearms secured on board. But these were isolated cases, a small fraction of our 150 trips a month.”
Of the TSA itself, Winthrop observed, “They’re not sure what the threat is at this point. Knowing everyone on your airplane is the solution. If you don’t, you won’t fly.”
Winthrop and Anderson concurred in hoping that whatever comes forth will not impose unnecessary, impractical and ineffective measures upon operators who are willing and able to ensure that their passengers are not terrorists. Winthrop opined that security “isn’t rocket science. I don’t imagine the security plan the TSA comes out with will be hard to live with. I expect they will be realistic about the costs of compliance.”
He said The Air Group maintains continuous surveillance of the aircraft under its management, as well as the charter fleet, and the company tightly controls access to its ramp and hangar areas. Winthrop added that security will be further enhanced when the Los Angeles World Airports Authority, which operates Van Nuys Airport, finishes installing fencing completely around the field to isolate it from surrounding surface streets.
For Skybird, crew and employee background checks will be no problem. Anderson, who was hired to form Skybird Aviation in 1976, is one of the firm’s three full-time pilots. Chief pilot Jim Topalian, Anderson’s first hire, is another. Both have more than 15,000 hr, and most of that is jet time.
The company uses part-time cockpit crew– generally the same few people–as relief pilots for international trips in its new GIV-SP. The other full-time employees are a mechanic, a secretary/charter coordinator and a flight attendant.
Built from the Ground Up
Skybird is privately held by an owner, whom Anderson met while flying Learjet charters for JetAvia at Las Vegas McCarran Field. The owner, a former JetAvia charter customer, “offered me a job setting up and running an operation for him,” Anderson recalled. “We started right off as an air-taxi operation since I was familiar with the Part 135 business.” Topalian, who was flying for another Las Vegas-based charter operation, soon joined newly formed Skybird.
For 14 years until this March, Skybird operated Gulfstream IV S/N 1000–the first GIV built. Anderson noted, “In all that time we had only one breakdown when we couldn’t continue the trip. That occurred six months after we took delivery.” That aircraft was traded back to Gulfstream for the GIV-SP, which was outfitted at the Long Beach, Calif. Gulfstream completion center with a custom 16-passenger interior created by Dave Bell Designs.
“The owner has always bought new aircraft,” Anderson said. “We looked at the BBJ and Global Express, but we finally decided the GIV-SP was best for us.” With its optional enhanced soundproofing package, “ours is the quietest GIV-SP ever delivered from Long Beach. Its measured interior sound levels are 48.4 dB forward, and only 67.4 dB aft. Much of that quietness is due to the Isodamp material that insulates the interior from the airframe. The owner would never sit in the back of our old airplane. Now he’s in back as much as in front.”
The aircraft, N234DB, is generously equipped to keep passengers in touch with the world on oceanic flights. It has a satellite communications system that includes AFIS, fax and a Honeywell sat-phone, all essential for trips the GIV-SP makes to Singapore, Bali, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Russia.
Skybird’s GIV-SP, in service less than six months, also carries what Anderson calls “a few loyal repeat customers. The movie industry is pretty good to us. We get quite a bit of overflow that the studio fleets can’t serve.”
Skybird started operating from VNY with a Learjet 24E (“of which only 14 were built. It had no wing fuel tanks”), and in 1978 it acquired one of the 12 Learjet 28s built. “It was a Learjet 25 with winglets. We operated the first winglet-equipped general aviation production airplane,” Anderson recalled. However, despite being the first business jet certified to operate at FL 510, the Learjet 28 didn’t provide the expected range.
By 1987 Skybird was flying a Learjet 55, 35 and 24 and Gulfstream II and IV. “Then we became a one-aircraft operation because the owner got tired of having his own air force. At one time we had the largest business jet fleet on the West Coast.” Anderson takes pride in the fact that Skybird has operated accident-free and compliant with the FARs for all those years. “The ‘old’ Part 135 operators, including a few I flew for, had a bad reputation for cutting corners, operating without type-rated pilots and so forth. I like to think we helped erase that image.”
Anderson said the increasing inconvenience and security-imposed delays attendant to airline travel have bolstered Skybird’s business this year. Winthrop wholeheartedly concurred: “Our charter business jumped for three months after September 11.”