A little over two years have passed since the crash off the French coast of a Piper Malibu that ended the life of Argentinian soccer player Emiliano Sala. The English Premier League star—who was on his way to Wales, where he had just been signed by Cardiff City—was the sole passenger on the 1984-built, U.S.-registered piston-single (N264DB) being flown by pilot David Ibbotson, who was also killed in the crash.
The accident on Jan. 21, 2019, made headlines globally due to Sala’s celebrity, and the European charter industry noted at the time that the crash bore the hallmarks of an illegal or “gray” charter operation.
Under European regulations, if a flight is operated for hire and reward, it is classified as an air-taxi service and must be approved by the relevant aviation authority to carry paying passengers. The aircraft must also be approved for this role and piloted by a professionally trained crew under an air operator certificate (AOC).
UK investigators confirmed the industry’s hunch about the legality of Sala’s flight in March 2020. In its final report into the crash, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) concluded that Ibbotson—a private pilot license holder who was unqualified to carry passengers for hire or reward—received a fee to transport Sala. It also found that Ibbotson, whose body has never been recovered, had been paid on numerous occasions to carry passengers, in blatant breach of regulations.
According to the AAIB report, Sala—whose remains were retrieved from the aircraft wreckage on the seabed on Feb. 6, 2019—had been exposed to potentially lethal levels of carbon monoxide, which may have incapacitated Ibbotson.
“The Sala crash really did highlight the dangers of flying with an unregulated operator,” said Glenn Hogben, chief executive of the Air Charter Association (ACA). “The business and general aviation community has been fighting this scourge for many years, with little impact, but it took a high-profile, horrifying incident like this one to bring this practice to the public’s attention.”
Determined to answer calls from legitimate commercial operators, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has launched a prosecution against David Henderson, the individual believed to be responsible for arranging Sala’s flight. Henderson's trial is scheduled to begin on October 18 in Cardiff, and it is hoped that a successful prosecution will set an example to potential future rule breakers.
“There is no typical sanction for illegal charter,” said the CAA, as each case is “treated individually.” However, a breach of Article 250, under Schedule 13 of the Air Navigation Order legislation—the charges brought against Henderson—can incur a fine and imprisonment, it added.
In the aftermath of the crash, the CAA launched a campaign to raise awareness of the "serious risks” of illegal public transport flights. It joined forces with a host of “stakeholders,” including soccer’s UK governing body, the Football Association, and other sporting organizations “to target specific areas where we think the risk of using illegal charters might arise.”
It said: “Agents may genuinely not understand the law and regulatory requirements in relation to the carrying of paying passengers and so we simply want to ensure they do not book travel for their clients with unlicensed operators.”
The CAA also distributed new guidance material to airfields and charter operators highlighting the safety risks for anyone using illegal public transport. It has distributed “several thousand” leaflets, and “more will follow” over the coming months.
“We are also working closely with the ACA and UK trade body the British Business and General Aviation Association [BBGA] to help us tackle the problem,” the CAA added.
The pair are founding members of the Air Charter Safety Alliance. Launched in December 2020, this coalition of global trade associations—including the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) and its counterparts in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the U.S.—has launched an online educational campaign to warn the wider industry and the public of the “dangers of illegal charter,” encourage individuals to report gray charter activities, and “hopefully dissuade those seeking to compromise safety for profit.”
ACA’s Hogben said illegal charter “goes against everything our industry works hard to deliver. It increases risk to passengers, damages the reputation of our industry, and impacts careers and businesses.”
The benefits of using established public transport providers are clear, Hogben explained: “An AOC holder takes all of the operational risk of public transport and is responsible if something goes wrong. For private owners who allow their aircraft to be used for illegal public charter, that risk and liability remain with them—and if a flight is performed illegally, it could invalidate any otherwise applicable insurance coverage, including the passenger’s own life insurance.”
Passengers on an irregular charter “think they have scored a great deal without realizing that they are being flown by a pilot who is generally not qualified for the type of flight being conducted,” said EBAA COO Robert Baltus. “The aircraft is maintained to a different standard and less flight preparation has been conducted than for flights under an AOC. In short, they have no idea of the risk and consequences of being flown to lower standards.”
He splits the law flouters into three groups: the clueless, the careless, and the criminal. “The first two parties either don’t understand that they operate illegally or are not paying attention to the specificities of their flight,” Baltus explained. “This is the group that we [in the industry] try to educate on an ongoing basis.”
The criminal group is of more concern, he admitted, and it requires the assistance of aviation authorities to bring prosecutions. “In that area, we are supporting the authorities with data on flights provided by our members and by education if needed. This is an ongoing activity,” he said.
EBAA and other industry associations admit that it has been difficult to gauge what impact the Sala crash and the investigators' damning findings have had on illegal charter activity in Europe, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has stifled the travel market since early 2020. “There is no clear measure to see if the activity has changed as there is no overall data available and because Covid-19 travel habits have changed,” said Baltus.
As Europe slowly emerges from lockdown over the coming months, the pent-up demand for travel is likely to provide rich pickings for unscrupulous operators and for unsuspecting customers looking for a good deal to fly privately.
“Many people will use these services out of ignorance and because they are typically cheaper than hiring an AOC operator to conduct the flight,” warned John Hill, chief pilot and head of operations for UK-based charter company Capital Air Services. “Public transport operators are more expensive because of the overheads involved in meeting the required levels of oversight, safety, and security. That is something we as an industry must promote to the traveling public.”
Hill fears the Sala incident has had little impact on unscrupulous operators, noting, “Helicopter owners don’t think the incident applies to them, and fixed-wing aircraft operators have already moved on.”
He singles out the cost-sharing market for particular criticism. While this practice was established to allow private pilots to build up their hours by sharing the costs of the flight down the middle with travelers heading to the same destination, Hill argues that it is increasingly being used as illegal charter through the back door. “It has become so relaxed to the point where it is nearly impossible to prove a criminal act.”
Hill’s view is supported by the ACA’s Hogben, who said that even during a ramp check at an FBO, passengers on a suspected illegal charter are often instructed by the pilot to say they have not paid for the flight, rendering a criminal prosecution hopeless. “It’s very difficult to bring these operators to justice,” said Hogben.
He points to only one prosecution in the UK “in recent history” that has resulted in a prison sentence. The guilty party in that case was Robert Murgatroyd, the pilot of PA28 Cherokee, who was detained in March for three years and six months for carrying out an illegal charter flight in September 2017.
Despite holding only a private pilot license (PPL), Murgatroyd charged his three passengers £500 ($580) each for a birdwatching trip, from Manchester to the Isle of Barra in Scotland. The piston-single was 193 kg (426 pounds) over the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight of 975 kg, and it crashed into a field soon after the flight began. Nobody was seriously injured.
Murgatroyd was convicted on seven charges, including recklessly endangering the safety of an aircraft or persons in an aircraft, conducting a public transport flight without an AOC, and acting as a pilot without holding an appropriate license. Hogben hopes David Henderson’s prosecution by the CAA, if successful, will send a strong signal to potential illicit operators.
For its part, the CAA said it takes illegal public transport flying “extremely seriously.” It calls the practice “a clear safety risk” to unsuspecting passengers and said it undermines the livelihood of safety-conscious, law-abiding operators. “We will continue to investigate and prosecute individuals engaged in illegal public transport flights and will always push for the strongest possible sentences,” the CAA said.
The agency urges anyone “thinking about paying for a flight in a light aircraft” to check that the individual or company conducting the flight has an AOC.
Adam Twidell, founder and chief executive of one of Europe’s largest business aircraft brokers, PrivateFly, urges the industry to remain scrupulous. “The most important part we can all play is to always report suspicious activity, no matter how little evidence there appears to be,” said Twidell.
Trade bodies, including the EBAA and ACA, collect this data and share it with the relevant European authorities, he continued, “so with a larger volume of reporting, patterns can be established that highlight repeat offenders and deter others.”