Is it possible that a subtle shift is occurring away from the pervasive and persistent menace of illegal charter operations? Anecdotally, and perhaps for me just hopefully, I am seeing more aircraft owners, operators, lessees, and lessors asking whether they need some type of leasing or other structure to avoid FAA scrutiny or personal liability.
Leasing enables a lessee, which may be an individual or entity (person), to lawfully “operate” and thereby exercise “operational control” over an aircraft under the FARs. Only one person has operational control. Leasing offers a broad array of benefits and structures to direct cash flow from lessees to lessors and vendors, manage risk, minimize certain taxes, share aircraft use and cost among unrelated and affiliated parties, and facilitate commercial operations under FAR Part 135.
But leasing is not an incidental subject, as explained in the General Aviation Dry Leasing Guide developed by NBAA and several other aviation alphabet groups. This 17-page publication informs aircraft buyers, owners, lessors, lessees, lenders, brokers, lawyers, and other advisors about the flexibility, utility, regulatory aspects, and complexity of leasing.
Key FAA Leases: Dry and Wet
It is essential first to understand that a “lease” under the Uniform Commercial Code in part means a transfer by a “lessor” to a “lessee” of the right to possession and use of an aircraft for a term in return for consideration—usually hourly, fixed, and/or variable rent payments.
Sales differ from leases. A sale occurs, for example, under a “disguised lease,” a contract perhaps labeled as a lease with terms like a lease, but the lessee pays for the full value or price of the airplane in rents. In FAA terms, such a lease is a “conditional sales contract.”
In contrast, a true lease might exist when the lessor retains residual value risk—the remaining value of the aircraft at the end of the lease term. Sellers do not take this risk. Finally, a charter is not a lease; it is a service, with no change of aircraft possession.
Under FAR 91.23, “a lease means any agreement by a person to furnish an aircraft to another person for “compensation or hire, with or without flight crewmembers, that is not a contract of conditional sale.” In this context, the FAA identifies two extremely important categories of leases in Order 8900.1: dry leases and wet leases.
Dry lease refers to an aircraft transaction in which the lessor provides the aircraft, the lessee independently supplies the crewmembers, and the lessee retains operational control of the flight. FAR 1.1 defines a core regulatory concept of operational control with respect to a flight as “the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting, or terminating a flight.”
Illegal or unsafe operations may occur when leases or other contracts do not specify who is responsible for operational control of the aircraft and in other circumstances. As such, the FAA focuses on operational control in assessing whether a flight operation is an illegal charter or valid Part 91 operation.
Operational control under Part 91 does not mean the traveler must fly the aircraft personally. An aircraft owner or lessee typically delegates that responsibility to pilots under Part 91 or charter operator under Part 135. I sometimes refer to the one person that exercises operational control as having the liability target on the person’s back.
For example, in one of the most common uses of dry leases, an owner enters into a dry lease between a limited liability company (LLC), as the single-purpose aircraft owner entity, to put operational control of flight operations into the hands of one person as the lessee in compliance with Part 91.
A major business enterprise for profit may be an appropriate dry lessee if the aircraft serves the business of the enterprise whose operations generate substantially more revenue than the operating costs of the aircraft. The LLC owner/member may also agree to an “exclusive dry lease,” with one lessee/operator or “non-exclusive leases” with multiple aircraft lessees/operators under their separate non-exclusive leases.
The finance world routinely uses exclusive dry leases of various types to enable a lessor to buy an aircraft and lease it to a lessee without crew under a long-term lease. Here, the lessee similarly supplies the crew and assumes all obligations under the lease for the care, custody, and control of the aircraft during the term, including for its maintenance, crewing, operations, cost payments, insurance, and taxes.
Despite the availability of leasing, new and current aircraft owners still frequently violate the FARs when their LLCs operate the aircraft but have no business other than to own and operate their aircraft, converting the LLCs into illegal “flight department companies.” Such a single-purpose LLC cannot lawfully conduct these operations, share the aircraft for any compensation (anything of value), or offer the aircraft for hire to others unless the LLC obtains an air carrier certificate under Part 119 and operates the aircraft under Part 135. It is quite feasible to use non-exclusive or exclusive dry leases to rectify or avoid these violations.
In contrast to a dry lease, the FAA defines a wet lease in FAR 110.2 as an aircraft lease whereby the lessor provides both an entire aircraft and at least one crewmember to a lessee. The lessor retains operational control of the flight, unlike a dry lease where the dry lessee supplies its own crew, directs many aspects of flight operations, and retains operational control.
Another significant distinction exists between Part 91 private operations and Part 135 commercial operations conducted by the air carrier that influences lease structuring. The air carrier (charterer) has the liability target on its back instead of the person that would otherwise exercise operational control under Part 91. This feature appeals to risk-averse Part 91 lessees or owners that want to mitigate the risk of liability for accidents involving their aircraft under their operational control of the aircraft.
When the Rubber Hits the Runway
When the conduct of flights blurs the line in determining whether one lessee/passenger has operational control or the lessor/aircraft provider has operational control under Part 91, illegal charter operations may be occurring. Lessees normally must understand and accept operational control and related obligations.
Although the FAA has no specific criteria to determine when Part 91 dry leases morph into illegal wet leases, lessees should be wary of lessors that offer leases to multiple unrelated parties, induce the parties to hire the lessor’s pilots, and usurp the lessee’s independence in exercising operational control.
Importantly, the lease parties of large civil aircraft (over 12,500 pounds mtow) must comply with FAR 91.23, the Truth-in-Leasing rules. These rules, which protect and inform lessees, require the filing with the FAA of a copy of the lease within 24 hours of signing and notice to the local FAA Flight Standards office at least 48 hours before the first flight under the lease.
There is no excuse for operating an aircraft as an illegal charter, especially when leasing aircraft provides a reasonable way to transfer rights to lessees to possess and use an aircraft under the lessee’s operational control. With the guidance of knowledgeable aviation counsel, individuals and entities can operate safely, lawfully, and knowledgeably under the FARs using leases and other related documentation that will survive FAA scrutiny.
This blog is purely informational and reflects the author’s experience and legal practice. It does not, and should not be construed to, provide legal advice of any kind, express or implied, or create a lawyer-client relationship. Each lessee, lessor, owner, member, or other person involved directly or indirectly in any issue, transaction, or other matter covered in this blog should inquire of, and rely on, their own aviation experts and other trusted advisors.