FAA still not policing Part 91 management companies

AINonline
January 24, 2011 - 11:13am

There is an irony apparent in the events following the February 2005 Challenger accident at Teterboro. Investigators nearly ignored the primary cause of the crash, as the NTSB focused primarily on 14 CFR Part 135 operational control issues and the lack of FAA oversight as the secondary causes. The industry and the media then homed in on the FAA’s efforts to tighten the reins of operational control for 14 CFR Part 135 operators and the aircraft on their certificates. 

The FAA enacted changes to its Operations Specifications A002 and A008 as well as FAA Order 8900.1. It then began evaluating operator compliance with the new measures and in some cases taking certificate action against operators who did not conform. Finally, the FAA pursued legal action against the principal officers of Platinum Jet Management, the company that operated the Challenger, and the two pilots involved in the crash. 

But the irony of the Platinum Jet debacle is that the primary cause of the accident had little to do with charter or commercial operations. The cause was something far more basic. Platinum Jet mandated the practice of tankering fuel as a company cost-saving measure. When the Challenger 600 taxied for takeoff on Feb. 2, 2005, it was carrying too much fuel for the payload aboard and the center of gravity was too far forward. As a result, the pilot was unable to raise the nose at rotation speed, resulting in the aborted takeoff and the airplane’s departure from the runway and collision with a warehouse.

Clearly, the accident was the result of the company’s deliberate disregard of aircraft flight manual limits and willful or ignorant negligence on the part of the pilot-in-command. How could such blatant non-compliance occur without FAA knowledge? The answer is both simple and disturbing: Platinum Jet was an aircraft management company operating under 14 CFR Part 91 with virtually no FAA oversight. This gap in FAA supervision, left unresolved in the wake of the accident, still exists today. 

Regulatory Loopholes
There are hundreds of aircraft management companies operating in the U.S. While many of them possess Part 135 certificates and operate all of their aircraft to this standard, there are numerous companies that do not and, indeed, many that specialize solely in Part 91 management. These Part 91 companies enjoy loopholes in both the FAA regulatory and IRS tax structures. From a regulatory standpoint, they can manage aircraft as small as Cessna 172s and as large as VIP-configured airliners and oversee aircraft fleets of unlimited size. The management personnel are not required to have formal training or documented experience and they can be hired, replaced or fired with no notice to the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).

In addition, no documented operations procedures or pilot-training programs are required and no currencies, other than those specified by 14 CFR Part 61, are necessary. While training vendors must be specified in the letters of authorization for reduced vertical separation minimums or required navigation performance, the training programs themselves do not have to be described or approved. Furthermore, no approved maintenance programs are necessary other than those required by the aircraft manufacturer.

For the services they provide, Part 91 management companies are permitted to collect management fees from their clients. They may also bill for crew services, maintenance performed on client aircraft, aircraft cleaning and any other fees they deem appropriate and to which the client agrees. Part 91 management companies are exempt from the definition of a commercial operator laid out in 14 CFR Part 1.1, and since they do not charge their clients on a per-leg or per-person basis, they are also exempt from IRS Federal Excise Tax considerations as well. 

While benefiting from the loopholes in the regulatory and tax structures, Part 91 management companies exercise de facto operational control of their clients’ aircraft as the FAA defines it for commercial operators.  While 14 CFR Part 1.1 provides the primary definition of operational control––that is, “the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting or terminating a flight”–the FAA relies equally on the criteria listed in 14 CFR Part 119.53. These criteria include:

• Does the operator hire and pay the crewmembers?

• Does the operator train and qualify the crewmembers?

• Is the operator responsible for the airworthiness of the aircraft?

• Does the operator perform maintenance on the aircraft?

• Does the operator service the aircraft?

• Does the operator schedule and dispatch the aircraft?

• Any other issues the Administrator deems applicable.

A typical Part 91 management company performs nearly all of these services for its clients. Furthermore, if an owner’s trip plans clash with the management company’s operations policy, the company may restrict or modify an owner’s itinerary, thereby even limiting an owner’s ability to initiate or conduct a flight.

There are many management companies operating and maintaining aircraft for compensation with de facto operational control over those aircraft and with little to no FAA oversight whatsoever–precisely what occurred with Platinum Jet in its operation of the ill-fated Challenger at Teterboro. 

Management Rules beyond the U.S.
It is noteworthy that among countries with a large business aviation industry, the phenomenon of unregulated aircraft management companies is unique to the U.S. For example, in Canada, anyone operating a large aircraft (greater than single engine) is required to possess a private operator’s certificate (POC). POC holders require approved management personnel, company operations manuals, training programs and an approved safety management system. A management company may operate an aircraft for a company with a POC, but the management company itself normally has either a POC or the commercial equivalent, an air operator’s certificate (AOC). Holders of POCs and AOCs are subject to similar government-regulated standards and oversight in the Canadian system. 

The UK-generated Overseas Territories Aviation Requirements regulations also feature close oversight of private operators. In Europe, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) still recognizes a difference between private and commercial operators for oversight purposes, but the regulations that govern these organizations have yet to be written in detail. When the final regulations are enacted, most European operators expect little difference between the EASA’s guidance for commercial and private operators. Unlike U.S. regs, under which the certificate of airworthiness (CofA) is tied to the aircraft alone, under EASA regulations the CofA is tied to an aircraft’s entire operating structure, so the agency can revoke it if an operation doesn’t meet its standards. 

Would FAA oversight of Part 91 management companies have affected the outcome of the Challenger crash at Teterboro? While it is impossible to answer this question with certainty, requirements for qualified management personnel, an approved training program, an accepted operations manual, an approved maintenance program and regular audits by the local FSDO might have gone a long way to breaking the chain of events that ended in a serious accident. What form should oversight take? Management specifications for Part 91 management companies, similar to those issued to fractional operators under Part 91K, might be an appropriate answer. Certification might be another.

Regardless of the final form FAA oversight takes, the FAA will not demonstrate that it has learned the lessons from the Platinum Jet crash until it takes regulatory action for Part 91 management companies. The fact is that if the Challenger had been owner flown, the outcome would have been no different. The aircraft would still have been destroyed and the passengers would have still barely escaped with their lives. Without FAA oversight, the next passengers of an unsupervised Part 91 management company might not be so fortunate.

Chris Broyhill is the chief pilot for a corporate operator. A 20-year USAF veteran (retired as Lt. Col.) and Air Force Academy distinguished graduate, he is currently working on a Ph.D. in aviation from Embry Riddle. He was previously national chief pilot at Sentient/JetDirect/Wayfarer Aviation.

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Matt
on December 14, 2012 - 6:25pm

Unfornately when you have a you have a bunch of idiots in congress making laws increasing the time requirements to even fly a dash 8 say for example Commut Air pilots start to find ways to build their time such as part 91 operations, and when the same idiots in congress want to hold back other people's lives.. let say the pilots who went to college who spent $50,000 and upward to get their degrees and get their pilot certificates and who are let say in in their mid 20's trying to start their careers and cant and are still living in thair partents home bc these same idiots are the ones who put a damper on these pilots lives by saying you now have to have 1500 hrs to even apply for a regional job, well how else are you going to get practrical experience.... Oh i got it the only thing left is flight instructing ...... oh and i forgot doing 1500 hr hours of the same thing such as stall spin stall spin is going to make them still qualified to fly a dash 8.
No, pilots who start flying a dash 8 use that expeience to move up to bigger and better, so how are these pilots going to be ready for bigger and better if every one requires 1500hrs total time, and the only time their getting is flight instructing!!!
Why don't these articles also advertise that the same pilots that are building these 1500 hrs are the same ones who are now starting out at commut air sitting right seat in a dash 8 making PENNYS ON THE DOLLAR wouldnt that make the passengers feel good. WHY DOESNT Congress put some requlations on that B.S.
Clearly Congeess doesnt know what the hell their doing.
We need a petition to get signed and a law passed and into affect that if you want to run for congress you need 5 years as a city mayor, 10 years as a governor and 5 years as a house representative before they can even reach the senate!!!!!! and will see how they like it. Oh and then when they finally reach their goal their GOING TO GET PAID PENNYS ON THE DOLLAR AND THEY STILL HAVE THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN SCHOOL LOANS TO PAY BACK!!!
We dont need more regulations on the hour requirements for pilots to fly we need more regualations on companies that push their pilots to the limit such as what use to be colgan airlines who ran their pilots rechid... trying flying a plane with no sleep I would have to say FATIGUE lead to pilot error in the case of colgan. Why werent those pilots able to jump seat to get to the location of the plane, why did the female pilot have to drive 5 states over to get to the plane she was going to fly, Fatigue plays a big part on aernautical judgment.
In the case on this article again managment ran these pilots to the ground probably by telliing them their going to to lose their jobs if they didnt carry that extra fuel.

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orlando medina
on May 23, 2013 - 12:36pm

Well al this is well and timely. My cuestion , is there a sure way ( or ways) to detect when a part 135 is being disguised as a part 91?

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