The European business aviation industry must increase awareness of illegal charter operators and push for harsher sanctions if it has any chance of wiping out the illicit practice. This was a key message from the Air Charter Expo (ACE) conference held last week at London Biggin Hill Airport.
“So-called grey charter activity is widespread and is costing our public transport operators a vast amount in lost income,” said Nigel Harris, a charter broker and council member of the Air Charter Association (ACA).
He explained that, under European regulations, if a flight is operated for hire and reward, it is classified as an air-taxi or charter 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).
“This is a highly regulated industry,” Harris noted, “and there is considerable time and expense involved in setting up and maintaining an AOC [which is designed] to keep customers safe. These high standards do not apply to privately operated aircraft.”
Of particular concern to the industry, Harris said, is the bourgeoning aircraft ride-sharing market, which he said is open to abuse from unlawful or ignorant pilots. The system of ridesharing allows passengers to contribute towards the pilot’s direct operating costs—such as fuel and landing fees—on a pre-determined trip advertised by the pilot. The flight cannot be made for commercial gain or for valuable consideration.
“There is nothing wrong with [private] pilots using these platforms legitimately as a way of building their hours or legitimately sharing the cost of their flight. Many do [so legally], but not all, and we need to get tough on the offenders,” Harris said.
He called for more prosecutions with regulators imposing hefty penalties on the offenders, including prison sentences and substantial fines. These, Harris explained, will act as deterrents to potential lawbreakers. “If it hurts, they won’t do it again.”
David Kendrick, head of airline licensing at the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), acknowledged the industry’s concerns and stressed the government’s commitment to tackling grey charter. “In the last month we have investigated seven cases and issued four directions not to fly,” he said.
Kendrick also pointed to the pending trial of David Henderson—the individual believed to be responsible for arranging the doomed January 2019 flight 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 Piper Malibu (N264DB).
Fourteen months after this high-profile fatal crash, UK investigators concluded that Sala was being flown by a private pilot who, despite being unqualified to carry passengers for hire or reward, received a fee to transport the player.
While Sala’s tragic death made international headlines and thrust the practice of illegal charter into the spotlight, the public outcry was short-lived, conceded ACA CEO Glenn Hogben. “We have to continue to campaign hard and raise awareness of the dangers of grey charter,” he said.
In December, ACA joined forces with a host of international trade associations—including EBAA and its counterparts in Africa, the Middle East, and U.S.—to form the Air Charter Safety Alliance. The alliance’s online educational campaign is designed to warn both the industry and public of the “dangers of illegal charter.” It also encourages individuals to report grey charter and “hopefully dissuade those seeking to compromise safety for profit.”
Hogben explained that the traditional 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 passengers’ own life insurance.
Hogben split 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. 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 requires the assistance of aviation authorities to bring prosecutions. In that area, Hogben continued, the industry is supporting authorities with data on flights provided by tipsters and by education if needed. “We must remain vigilant,” he said. “This is an ongoing activity, and a global effort.”
Hogben’s view was supported by CAA flight operations director Peter Stroud. “We are ready and willing to take on illegal operators but are dependent on the business aviation community for intelligence. When we receive it, our inspectors will act on it,” he concluded.