For most companies, reputation is the most important possession, and that is particularly true in private aviation. No one is more aware of that than Dana Carr, co-owner, vice president and director of operations with Florida-based charter provider Air Trek. He has been working to restore his family-owned company’s image for the past six years, ever since the FAA revoked its air operator certificate, a move the NTSB later ruled was erroneous. “I was in shock,” Carr recalled before the audience at the National Air Transportation Association’s annual Air Charter Summit. “Nothing in our 31 years of business at that point could have justified the FAA’s actions.”
The agency was misguided by what Air Trek insisted was a series of trumped-up anonymous whistle-blower allegations and blog posts created by some disgruntled former employees and seemingly taken at face value by FAA investigators. For more than a year Air Trek fought back, before an NTSB administrative law judge finally reversed the FAA’s emergency order of revocation in 2008, in essence telling the agency that its argument was meritless, and accusing it of “shooting first and aiming later.”
Without its air operator certificate, the company was forced to lay off 87 of its 100 or so employees and Carr estimates that Air Trek, which also provides aeromedical transport, lost $1 million for each of the 15 months it was idle. Despite spending $350,000 in legal fees fighting the unfounded claims, under the Equal Access to Justice Act the company received just $124,527 in damages from the FAA. While the amount was a record penalty, its calculation was based on the average attorney billing of $100 per hour. “If you are going up against the national FAA, do you really want to have an average attorney working for you?” Carr asked the audience rhetorically, noting his company retained a seasoned (and costly) aviation attorney as it fought for its life.
With its certificate back on the wall, the company had then to contend with a loss of market share and a tarnished reputation while simultaneously dealing with the depths of the economic downturn.
Today Air Trek has bounced back to a fleet of seven aircraft: an IAI Westwind II, a Citation II, a pair of Citation Is and two Cessna 414s. The recent addition of a Citation VII for charter marks the company’s transition from recovery to growth, according to Carr. “So far 2014 is trending for record growth in both air ambulance and luxury private jet charter,” he told AIN, adding that continued fleet upgrades are planned.
For those who might find themselves in a similar unfortunate situation in today’s social media-driven world, Carr offered some advice. “Your personal and business reputations are your most valuable assets,” he said, acknowledging that in his case the vindictive blogs were allowed to fester unanswered for far too long, even as their authors became more brazen. He suggested that companies constantly monitor their online presence through search tools such as Google Alerts and respond immediately to all posts. While favorable remarks should be acknowledged, Carr warned about engaging in online arguments, recommending instead that the aggrieved party contact those who post negative comments directly for resolution.
He also recommended that companies in the industry should build a relationship with a good aviation attorney to prepare for such emergencies. For those faced with the unpleasant unannounced arrival of an FAA special-emphasis inspection team on the premises, he advised companies to document everything, preferably using video.