A recent National Air Transportation Association (NATA) survey provides a glimpse into the depth of the concerns surrounding illegal charter, with more than 90 percent of respondents saying they have been negatively affected by such unlawful activity. NATA, which has engaged in a multifaceted fight against illegal charter, launched the survey in August to gather data and feedback on the scope of the problem. The data, the association said, can help define the issue and be used in its advocacy.
“The challenge that we’re facing is, how really big is this issue? We know it is a global issue,” said Ryan Waguespack, NATA’s v-p for aircraft management, air charter services, and MROs. The survey results “did not shock me,” Waguespack added.
The survey drew 189 respondents, including 131 Part 135 certificate holders who represent 13.5 percent on the on-demand fleet. These operators average 14 aircraft in their fleet, 1,122 annual operations, and 100 employees.
While 91.4 percent responded in the affirmative when asked about negative effects, only 50 percent of the respondents said they report their encounters with illegal activities. Participants cited a number of reasons, such as fears of repercussions given the small size of the industry. They also are concerned about the potential of losing their own consumers, don’t want to be viewed as an instigator, and question how the authorities would respond—or if they are responding.
NATA has been working on the feedback loop with the FAA because a lack of feedback is discouraging reports, Waguespack said. The FAA legally cannot disclose details of an investigation, he acknowledged, but added, “When you’re taking a year or two years before the public receives any feedback [after a report of an illegal operation], that’s a real challenge.” In subsequent cases that operators might uncover, Waguespack said, “Are they going to report it? They’re not, because in their mind nothing is being done.”
He added operators are concerned about how inspectors may view increased workload that might be associated with complaints or about the “small nature of our industry” where people will be associated with each other for a long time. The goal for the fight against illegal operations is to empower operators who “are doing it right,” he added.
Illegal Activity Scope
Illegal activity that survey respondents have come across includes disguised leasing structures or leases executed without meeting the proper requirements or sign-off from the FAA, flights claiming to operate under “cost-sharing” exceptions without an owner present, and flights sold under the guise of “sales demos” or “flight training.”
A key tip-off is flights advertised rates far below those of legitimate operations, the survey revealed. This activity has further been discovered because clients have discussed it, an incorrect aircraft registration number was filed on flight plans, flight crews have made a notification, or multiple leases are taken on a single aircraft.
The survey also reinforced what NATA has concluded separately through its town halls with operators around the country: that the illegal activity tends to be found more in specific regions, including certain southern states (Florida in particular), as well as California. It is not as prevalent, or noticeable, in the Northeast.
But Waguespack said these concerns are reverberating globally. European charter executives also have been spearheading initiatives and have met recently with NATA. Further, Mexican aviation authorities have reached out to NATA and a meeting is scheduled in late October. Waguespack is scheduled to speak on the topic in the Philippines in November and authorities from South America and Australia have reached out to the association.
NATA’s Illegal Charter Task Force is looking at several initiatives, such as partnering with the FAA to provide guidance on identifying and steps to avoiding illegal operations. It has launched a website to provide resources and tools for the industry and traveling public. Beyond educational efforts, the association is working on the enforcement side in the identification of illegal activity.
“It is all about safety, safety, safety,” he said. “We’re held to a higher standard. We need that process for 135 standards. We do not want just anybody willy nilly flying 135 trips. A loss affects everyone.”