Covid Brings New Complexities to Charter Ops, Execs Say

 - September 16, 2020, 5:30 PM

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

As charter flights start to pick up, the lingering pandemic has raised a new series of questions for operators and brokers on how to handle cancellations and other issues that crop up as a result of Covid-19. “It does get really complicated. There isn’t a lot of guidance,” Elleana Spanos, senior legal counsel at broker Air Charter Service, said on Wednesday during the latest National Air Transportation Association (NATA) Air Charter Roundtable webinar. “It’s all so fresh. We’re just working our way through it.”

The webinar, focused on “Forging Ahead,” is part of a monthly series that NATA has held to keep a dialog open on the many issues confronting charter operators during the pandemic.

According to Argus, charter flights have continued to tick up and marked a 0.4 percent year-over-year improvement in August. Suran Wijayawardana, COO of charter operator Alerion Aviation, said his operation is just beginning to see some return of business flights. But Wijayawardana added that business flights are still “not back” and personal flights are estimated to account for some 80 percent of flying. As a result, larger aircraft use is still lagging. “I think it will come back, but I think it will take some time for the business travel,” Spanos agreed.

As these flights are ongoing, charter providers and brokers are facing new dilemmas on how to handle Covid-related cancellations on both the passenger’s and the operator’s part.

Spanos noted that every operator has a different approach. Some will just walk away from the flight and refund the payments. Others will assess cancellation fees.

“It’s a lot more complex than it used to be,” agreed Wijayawardana. Most operators have force majeure clauses in their contract—or provisions that excuse performance obligations when circumstances arise that are beyond a party’s control. Those contracts are generally written to protect the operator as an out from providing service when there is a natural disaster or something beyond the operator’s control.

But how does the pandemic fit with such clauses, he asked. The concern, added Wijayawardana, is that if charter operators demand cancellation fees, passengers will insist on flying, even if sick with Covid-19. Considerations include the charter operator’s arrangements and potential lost business because they held the aircraft for a particular trip that ultimately was canceled. Other issues can crop up when flights are booked farther outeven though most bookings are now closer to travel dates in this environmentand a passenger gets Covid in the interim.

The key, both Wijayawardana and Spanos agreed, is to ensure that expectations and responsibilities are well communicated with the customer upfront, both with the operator and broker. “Obviously an unhappy client doesn’t bode well for anybody,” Spanos said.

As far as customer demands, she noted particularly those who are more vulnerable or perhaps older ask numerous questions and seek further precautions. One of the more difficult requests surrounds the presence of flight attendants on larger aircraft, Wijayawardana said. While they provide a service for the clients, flight attendants are on board for safety reasons, particularly to help with the egress process should there be an emergency. However, some clients do not want the attendants on board, he said, which goes against company policy and makes it a difficult issue to resolve.

Also on the webinar, John McGraw, NATA v-p of regulatory affairs, provided an update on the association’s work with the FAA on the expectations surrounding the medical side, particularly when a pilot tests positive. NATA is awaiting answers on a series of questions, but the FAA is stressing that pilots have the same rights to privacy as anyone else. However, commercial pilots are required to report to their aviation medical examiner when they are sick and should not exercise their flight duties when impaired. The FAA, he said, “is sticking to the traditional structure where pilots are responsible for reporting when they are impaired.”

While the FAA might not mandate reporting to the company, many companies will have clauses on this, he added.

As far as demands that pilots were masks, the FAA does not believe this is necessary because of the separation between pilots and passengers and further believes it might impede safety should a pilot need to don an oxygen mask, McGraw said.