Are Charter Ratings Worth their Weight in Gold?

 - November 2, 2017, 10:55 AM

When consumers visit websites of charter operators and brokers to distinguish between top providers and the ordinary, myriad logos, seals and badges received from charter rating firms seem ambiguous at best. This is true for both the general public and even some within the business aviation industry.

Robert Sumwalt—an experienced corporate and airline pilot, aviation safety expert and now chairman of the NTSB—illustrated how confusing and misleading safety logos and registrations can be in a Board member statement contained within a November 2017 NTSB report about a fatal crash of a chartered Hawker 700. At the time of the accident, the operator, Execuflight, held Argus Gold and Wyvern Registered charter ratings, neither of which required an audit of the operator.

“Discriminating customers look to, and trust, such ‘seals of approval’ when selecting their air travel provider,” Sumwalt wrote. “This is not the first time the NTSB has seen an organization pass an industry audit, only to find after an accident that there was an illusion of safety…I am very concerned these industry audits did not detect serious safety deficiencies.”

Since then, Wyvern changed the name of its non-audited rating to "Registered with Wyvern data network." It has also posted the following disclaimer on its website: "Membership in the Registered with Wyvern data network does not constitute a safety certification nor is it intended to imply an endorsement of an operator's commitment to best practices in business aviation."

Wyvern CEO Art Dawley added, "Knowing that the operator has chosen not to be audited and certified in the Wingman program, the data network allows customers to assess alternative criteria that allows them to set their own level of acceptable risk. Wyvern does not rate companies; if operators pass our criteria during an on-site audit, they receive Wingman certification."

Contrary to Wyvern, Cincinnati, Ohio-based Argus has several operator ratings, and because it does—especially its two programs that allow charter operators to use round-shaped gold seals in their marketing materials and websites—president and CEO Joe Moeggenberg said he understands why some people have been confused. He didn't argue that the average charter customer might incorrectly assume that a gold rating means its a gold-standard charter operator. The company offers Gold, Gold Plus and Platinum ratings.

To earn the Gold rating, operators volunteer info and Argus does historical safety analysis, pilot background checks and operational control validation. Argus's Gold Plus is the result of an on-site audit, but the operator doesn't meet the high standards of its top-tier Platinum rating or chooses not to fix "non-safety" issues within 120 days.

When asked why the company still offers Gold Plus since the Platinum rating far exceeds FAA minimums, Moeggenberg said, “Operators that choose not to have a safety management system [SMS] or an emergency response plan [ERP] can become Gold Plus. It's not required by the FAA that Part 135 operators have an SMS or an ERP.”

There are also several scenarios where an operator might be downgraded from Platinum to Gold Plus status. One of these is when an operator "has parts of a SMS implemented within its company but chooses not to train employees in the fundamentals of the SMS," he told AIN.

Moeggenberg also said that if an operator "does not have a hazard reporting system in every area of the company," then that operator would become Gold Plus rated. He noted, "All industry best practices and regulatory requirements have some degree of safety impact for an operator."

As of early October, Moeggenberg said Argus has completed its click-through software so consumers of operators or brokers can verify the status of ratings in real time. "We're in the process of notifying our customers," he said. Wyvern has already had this verifying process available for several years.

According to Dawley, Wyvern's database includes approximately 2,026 Part 135 operators, though that number changes daily. He said there are 21,471 commercial and airline transport rated pilots in the Wyvern database. The number of operators that can be referenced in the Wingman Certified Directory was approximately 120 at press time. Moeggenberg reported there are currently 154 audited on-demand charter operators in his company’s system.

Broker Programs

In addition, Argus has two charter broker rating programs—registered and certified, the latter via on-site audit. However, some of its criteria is confusing. For example, Argus’s Gold Plus audited charter operators aren't required to have an ERP, yet certified charter brokers are expected to have this program.  

"To start, a [brokerage] company is required to provide adequate documentation to determine the legitimacy of business, such as articles of incorporation; how that business is conducted, employee and operations manuals; what protections are in place for consumers; contracts; terms and conditions; and insurance,” Moeggenberg said. “They are also required to sign the Baltic Air Charter Association pledge."

He said if the broker meets the standards of the evaluation, it's considered Argus Registered. An Argus Certified Broker undergoes an onsite audit after completing the registration process.

"This audit verifies the information gained during the registration process, but also evaluates a broker's due diligence process, how well its ERP is designed and how knowledgeable the brokers are in their market, among other things," Moeggenberg explained.

Both Wyvern and the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF) mandate that operators have a fully implemented SMS and an ERP. As well, neither has a broker program.

Russ Lawton, ACSF's director of safety management aviation/safety action program, said, "The ACSF does not conduct the audits. Instead, it trains and accredits audit organizations. There are at present two accredited audit organizations: Argus and R. Dixon Speas Associates. The listing of current [15] audited companies is listed on ACSF's website."

Lawton added that the ACSF does not offer any "ratings, certifications or reviews for non-audited companies."

As for not having a broker program, Dawley said, "It is a nonregulated industry with little oversight and guidance, which makes assessing any individual or company against a globally accepted benchmark challenging. There are no globally accepted benchmarks or requirements of which Wyvern is aware."