Covid Putting Charter Ops Under New Level of Scrutiny

 - May 21, 2020, 10:30 AM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way customers approach their air charter trips, with many paying close attention to health and sanitization protective measures and details down to the brands of cleaners used, industry executives said. Speaking during a National Air Transportation Association "Air Charter Roundtable: Forging Ahead" webinar on Wednesday, the executives warned that charter operators must implement the best practices possible for future survivability.

Elleana Spanos, North America legal counsel for charter broker Air Charter Service (ACS), said the number-one question her firm gets from prospective clients is how the operator handles health and sanitization protection. Clients want to know how operators sanitize the touchpoints and how safe the trip would be from a health standpoint, Spanos said. In turn, she added, “We’re proactively looking into that.”

Some operators, meanwhile, are surveying customers to ensure they haven’t been exposed to Covid-19 or have symptoms of it, she added.

“We've had to literally double the number of metrics that we track, things that we never knew that we would have to be interested in,” said Todd Weeber, COO of jet membership firm Magellan Jets. Such "metrics" range from which states are reopening and what are their reopening plans to what is the health and safety protocols of the FBOs, operators, and crews.

“We had a supply chain of 112 operators and we pulled it back worldwide to 35,” he said, so they could have better clarity of the operators' financial underpinnings, as well as whether they are complying with the FAA and Centers for Disease Control and Protection guidance.

“We've had a number of flights where we get immediate photographic negative feedback from our clients,” he said. The complaints, which have centered on both the FBO used and the operator, surround concerns such as lack of social-distancing protocols or absence of masks.

“We get detailed reports of who's wearing masks and when, who had hand sanitizer, who had PPE available for guests and who didn't,” he said. “Clients are very aware of crew behavior.”

Among those most careful, Weeber said, are the new “millionaire's next door” clients who formerly flew on the airlines.

Those customers “go through every page” of FAA guidance and they visit the EPA webpages to determine what’s safe and what’s not. Early on Magellan was caught off guard when they heard from clients concerned about cleaners or food sources on board. “We had to learn how to match up the list of FDA- and EPA-approved cleaning materials and then get that out to our operators,” noted Weeber.

He stressed that information sharing is crucial, adding a number of operators are collaborating and forums such as the NATA webinar are helping to educate them on necessary measures. “The main thing that will benefit all of us is…bringing people together and the free sharing of information,” he explained.

Magellan has distributed standards to its operators on measures such as the use of and provisions for personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers.

“Until there’s a cure, you have to do four things: you've got to make sure that it's covered up; you've got to make sure it cleans everything; you've got to make sure you maintain your distance; and, if you're sick you can't be anywhere around a person,” he said, adding such measures are “really, really simple to understand and very, very hard to do.“

Another potential pitfall for charter, at least those using managed aircraft, is the availability of aircraft themselves. Colby McDowell, managing director of acquisitions for business aviation consultancy VanAllen, said he is hearing from corporate operators who are saying: “Maybe this additional benefit we’re getting from charter is not going to make sense” and are now looking more to making their aircraft more available to internal corporate customers instead of charter.

Corporate operations are taking a cautious approach, and largely dedicating significant resources to protective measures, McDowell said. “I would say that across my corporate client base, they were actually probably ahead of the 135 industry, for the most part, recognizing that it's not a for-profit entity,” he said. “We've seen some pretty significant risk mitigations that have been put in place that just aren't practical [for Part 135].” He cited as an example operations with multiple hangars using one for incoming traffic and another for outgoing for social-distancing purposes.

As in Part 135, corporate operators have looked to outreach. “There’s a lot of sharing of information across corporate flight departments,” he said.