Concerned that paying passengers don’t understand the risks they face when stepping aboard illegal charters, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) has retooled its “Avoid Illegal Charter” website to “empower the market” with the ability to look up charter operators, access fact sheets, and report questionable operations.
Rolling out the revamped site, NATA executives highlighted a need to ensure safer skies as new models push boundaries of what is legal.
In the past, new models have come to fruition—from the advent of aircraft management more than 50 years ago to fractional ownership and more recently, jet cards, charter empty legs, and per-seat models—noted Jacqueline Rosser, senior advisor, regulatory affairs–air charter, for NATA. “In each of those cases, the boundary…has been more between when are we crossing the line from the on-demand framework into the scheduled realm,” Rosser said. “We’ve managed to address all of those issues within the industry and get clarity on how you can do certain things where other certifications are required.”
But, she added: that focus now appears to be shifting to what defines a private operation and a commercial operation. “Our primary goal from the organizational standpoint, the air charter standpoint, is to establish clarity,” she said.
Entities are “popping up, commercializing the [Part] 91 space,” Ryan Waguespack, v-p of aircraft management, air charter services, and MROs, agreed, adding, “It is a real concern because the general flying public does not truly understand the risks they are getting into. You are not getting into an Uber when you get into an aircraft.”
Compounding the issue is a lack of clarity on not only the definition of an illegal charter but on who is actually operating them.
NATA is currently surveying operators on their encounters with illegal operations and how it is affecting their business, Waguespack said, noting that one clear trend stands out: some 70 percent of operators do not report their encounters with illegal operations. “That was kind of staggering to me,” he said. Those respondents listed a number of reasons for this, but mostly out of concerns that the activity is in their backyard and, being in a small industry, they know it is going to come back on the legal entity. "They are concerned about losing their consumer, they are concerned about the FAA, and they don’t want to be the squeaky wheel.”
The survey, he said, was receiving a “tremendous” response as of mid-August, and NATA said it would keep it open over through the end of the month.
NATA plans to share the data with the FAA and the Department of Transportation to provide a picture of what is happening. “The effort really needs to be 'we want to keep our skies safe.' We are all about innovation. We’re all about change,” he said, but added, “We are a firm believer you can be innovative and still adhere to the regs.”
This comes back to education and resources, he said. The association a little more than a year ago established a task force focused on education about illegal charter. And the illegal charter website is designed to build on that. “You can look up a charter operator, you can submit a questionable operation—we’ve had a number of those—or you can call the illegal charter hotline,” he said. “We’re trying really to push out there how charter brokers, other operators, and end-users can look up and see if the aircraft they are engaging is on a charter certificate.”
The website aggregates numerous FAA lists to enable a search by operator or tail number of legal operations. That list is updated quarterly, but NATA’s goal is to update it monthly. Operators further are able to fill out a form through the website to report potential illegal charter activity. In addition, the website houses fact sheets with data on operations and provides operators with templates that they can show to prospective customers that explain the complexities of the industry.
Partnering with the FAA
NATA further took over the illegal charter hotline (888-SKY-FLT1), which it is using to gather data and pass along to the FAA’s special investigative team in Fort Worth, Texas. Noting that calls in the past have been somewhat vague, he said, “The biggest challenge is to gather as much data as possible.”
Another key component of this effort is working with the FAA. What started as a group of a little more than a dozen Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) officials has now swelled to close to 90 that are actively engaged and speaking regularly. NATA has collaborated with the FAA on gatherings between FSDO officials and operators to discuss what has been happening. These have taken place in South Carolina, Indiana, Tennessee, and Florida. Several more are in the works with meetings targeted to possibly take place in Texas, California, and Iowa, among others. The FSDO managers also are discussing holding a larger event next year to gather all interested parties together.
“The operators are really enjoying getting that one-on-one time with their inspectors and the leadership within the FSDOs,” Waguespack said. “But also, it is a good opportunity for the FSDOs to truly learn what is happening in the 91 space—what is behind these doors.”
Additionally, at the behest of Congress, the FAA has nearly completed guidance on one area that has been blurring the lines of commercial and private operations, flight-sharing, Rosser said. The Government Accountability Office further has been working on a report on this activity.
“As long as we continue to see cases of suspected illegal charter, more must be done to sound the alarm and educate the industry and public at all levels of the inherent risks and dangers of these activities,” added Waguespack. “We are pleased to partner with more and more FAA field offices in supporting events designed to highlight these potentially life-saving messages in their particular region. Together we will make a greater impact.”