Charter firms riding out economic turbulence

 - May 29, 2008, 7:30 AM

Charter aircraft operators seem to be weathering the double whammy of a recession and increased aviation security measures with reasonable success, with requests for information and, in some cases, actual charter bookings up in the more highly populated areas but down in some other places.

Part 135 on-demand air-taxi services gained access to the National Airspace System almost as soon as the airlines and, with the exception of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), can fly anywhere the Part 121 commercial air carriers are allowed.

“From the Part 135 standpoint,” said Jacqueline Rosser, flight operations specialist for the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), “the biggest obstacle that we have, and what we’ve been working on, is reopening National and doing whatever we can to get them access there.” She said that NATA is also working as an advocate for fractional providers to return them to DCA as well.

Thus far, Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 91 relating to airport security
has had little effect on charter companies. It now requires all aircraft operators who enplane or deplane passengers into a sterile area at a Part 107 airport to conduct screening before departure.

The sterile area is defined by each individual airport, and generally is past the airline passenger screening area to the end of the gate area. “If you have an aircraft going anywhere near the air carrier traffic, it would need to be screened,” said Rosser. She explained that most FBOs are not within a sterile area, but if pilots have any doubts, they should contact the FBO.

An exception would be a cargo operator flying parts for an airline, where the pilot would taxi right up to the airline gate to drop off a part. “Obviously that is within a sterile area and that operation would have to have screening and checking of the aircraft,” she said.

SFAR 91 also gives the FAA authority to require screening procedures for operators of all aircraft with a maximum mtow exceeding 12,500 lb, regardless of whether it is Part 91 or Part 135. That would come via a notam, but the agency has not yet chosen to exercise that option, although it may in the future. NATA is urging its members to check Notams before every flight.

Rosser said that demand for charter flights seems to correlate with the geographical areas that are typically high users of charter aircraft–the Northeast and the West Coast. Business is also being driven by corporations that are not yet comfortable with putting their executives on airlines, along with reduced schedules that offer fewer flight options.

“If there is going to be any major change, I think probably in the first half of next year we’ll see any consolidations that might happen,” Rosser said. “But I think all-in-all the industry is doing quite well–considering the rest of the aviation industry.”