Chartering a business aircraft is a convenient alternative to flying on an airline. For consumers not versed in aviation, finding the safest operators can be a challenge. The expectation is that chartering a Gulfstream or Learjet should have the exact same level of safety as riding in the back of a Southwest or Delta airliner. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
After reading several recent NTSB accident reports involving chartered flights, a few glaring issues emerged. One, the FAA doesn’t hold on-demand operators to the same safety standards or level of oversight as the scheduled airlines. The other is that those companies operating “on the cheap” have no business offering services to the traveling public. This is a case where a few bad apples have hurt the reputation of an entire industry.
The NTSB has taken notice. Improving the safety of charter (Part 135) aircraft flight operations made the 2019 NTSB “Most Wanted” list for safety improvements. NTSB analysis suggests that 53 potential lives could have been saved over a 15-year period (2000 to 2015) had charter operators employed dedicated safety programs such as a safety management system (SMS) and flight data monitoring (FDM).
The problem is that most charter operators do not have, and are not required, to have an SMS, FDM, or other programs such as controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) avoidance and cockpit resource/pilot-in-command leadership training programs. Airlines are required, by FAA regulation, to employ these programs except for FDM (although all Part 121 carriers in the U.S. have “voluntary” FDM/FOQA programs).
According to the NTSB, “These programs enable operators to take a strategic approach to safety management requiring safety-focused policies, practices, and procedures to keep aircrews and passengers safe.” In all, the NTSB has 21 open safety recommendations to the FAA to address the safety gap in Part 135 operations.
So, how can a charter customer find a safe operator?
The first step is to find a legitimate charter company. In recent months, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) and other industry organizations have begun a campaign to highlight the practice of illegal charter—that is, aircraft owners or operators charging passengers for flights, sometimes through multiple “middle men,” but not legally conforming to the safety rules and specifications of a commercial operator under Part 135.
To curb these “pirate charters,” NATA has commissioned a dedicated website that identifies the risks associated with these illegal charters and allows users to query a database to find legitimate charter companies (by name and aircraft registration) that have the proper FAA operating certificate.
NATA offers a few more suggestions to avoid an illegal charter. Legitimate charter companies should, when asked, provide a copy of its FAR Part 135 air carrier certificate and insurance certificate. Failure to provide these documents—or if the operator is not forthcoming—should be considered a red flag. Another sketchy practice is an arrangement where the passengers themselves must pay the pilot or aircraft operator directly.
Once a valid charter company is identified, NATA suggests customers pre-screen that operator by asking about its experience, safety, security, maintenance, and insurance. A charter company should be completely transparent.
Questions about the company’s organizational structure might uncover “resource” limitations. For example, ask for specific names of individuals holding key positions within the organization. At a minimum, an operator should have a director of operations (DO), director of safety (DoS), and chief pilot in its management structure. Positions that are either vacant or filled by the same individual is a sign of organizational distress—financial or otherwise.
One recent accident report highlighted that the owner of the company filled the positions of president, DO, and DoS. By design, having talented and competent people in each of these positions provides a system of “checks and balances.” As an example, separating operations from safety should avoid potential conflicts of “production versus protection.”
Another area where consumers need to be educated is in the area of industry safety ratings and audits, such as those from Argus and Wyvern. Many charter companies use these industry safety ratings in their marketing material to create what NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt III called an “illusion of safety.”
Following the crash of a chartered Hawker 700A in Akron, Ohio that killed nine people, Sumwalt commented, “Finally, I’m concerned that an organization that had so many safety-related issues could have an Argus Gold rating and be Wyvern Registered. Discriminating customers look to, and trust, such ‘seals of approval’ when selecting their air travel provider.” As the final accident report suggested, this accident was wrought with SOP violations and organizational shortcomings such as training, maintenance, and pilot hiring practices. In actuality, simply being rated or registered by an auditor does not ensure the company has received a full audit.
Discriminating customers should use safety ratings and audits as another point to generate conversation. A line of questioning might ask whether or not that rating involved an on-sight audit or does it simply mean that the company is registered in a database. A follow-on question might entail: “If an audit was conducted, who was the auditor and how were they trained?”
One decade ago, the NTSB made similar recommendations to the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) industry and FAA to improve safety. At that time, the HEMS community had just closed out its deadliest period on record. During that one-year period, there were 12 accidents that claimed 29 lives. From those recommendations, HEMS operators were, as an example, required to adopt SMS, operational control centers, and install flight data monitoring and terrain awareness systems.
Short of creating a “Charter Passenger Bill of Rights,” the charter industry needs to take an introspective look at creating a “standard” audit process for Part 135 charter ops. Airlines, through IATA, conduct comprehensive audits that are internationally recognized and incorporate several recommended standards and practices. This single recognized standard may eliminate confusion to the consumer and provide a higher level of safety assurance.
Inclusion of SMS, FDM, and terrain awareness training for charter operators on the NTSB’s Most Wanted list is smart. This follows the roadmap laid out by the scheduled airlines in the U.S that has made it the world’s safest form of transportation.
Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at by email.