PPrivate jets used to be for Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and business people. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, many air travelers opted for charter flights to avoid crowded airport terminals and long security lines. The problem, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aviation experts, is that it’s too easy for passengers to accidentally end up on an illegal charter.
“The problem at its core is that people are posing as certified charter operators, which suggests they’ve met certain safety standards that the FAA has put in place, when in fact they haven’t,” said Brian Koester, Director of Flight Operations and Regulations at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), which represents more than 11,000 companies and professionals in the business aviation community.
Since early 2021, the FAA has issued approximately $9.5 million in civil penalties to nearly two dozen companies for operating charter flights without proper certification or qualified pilots.
However, the problem is believed to be much more widespread than a few dozen delinquents. “We don’t know what we don’t know. We know about those we catch,” an FAA official said recently forbes. “Just as you can’t have a cop on every street corner, we can’t have every flight met by an inspector.”
Not all of the agency’s 4,000 safety inspectors are focused on charter operations. Nearly eight in 10 FAA managers who oversee charter flights said their offices are understaffed, according to a 2021 report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.
Earlier this month, the agency proposed a $1 million civil penalty against Aircraft Resource Management for allegedly operating 78 charter flights in six different twin-engine airplanes without proper FAA certifications or qualified pilots.
Though the Wichita-based company’s website is tagged with an “unsafe” warning, it’s otherwise slick, with generic photos of well-heeled executives climbing the plane steps. “We ensure that our customers travel quickly and efficiently with our private aircraft and do not have to deal with commercial airlines,” says the copy. “Commercial airlines are a nuisance and take up extra hours of your time. So why not hire an aircraft charter service when your time and travel plans are precious?”
“People may not have experience buying a charter flight,” Koester said. “They may not know what to look for or what questions to ask to find out whether the operator is certified or not.”
How to Check a Charter Flight Provider, Say Aviation Experts.
Ask for the company’s Air Carrier Operating Certificate. Approximately 2,000 air charter companies in the United States have met the comprehensive criteria needed to qualify for an Air Carrier Operating Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Before booking your flight, Koester recommends inquiring about the company’s Part 135 certificate number. A Part 135 operator offers commercial non-scheduled operations such as: B. Private air charter flights.
If the company is reluctant to provide a certificate number, you can consult the FAA’s publicly searchable online database, which lists all of the country’s authorized charter operators along with each aircraft that those operators are legally permitted to operate. Alternatively, contact the appropriate regional FAA office to verify that the charter operator is authorized to carry paying passengers.
Ask for the pilot’s credentials. Your charter pilot must hold either a commercial pilot certificate or an FAA-issued air transport pilot certificate. Make sure the pilot’s license is valid and not outdated.
Ask for safety credentials. Next, ask the operator what SMS – Safety Management System – certificates and qualifications they have.
“That tells me that not only does the company meet the minimum standard, but they have done everything they can to ensure they operate as safely as possible,” Koester said. “It’s telling if the company has an SMS and has been audited and certified by a third party to show they’re doing the things they need to be doing to be safe.”
Be skeptical about a low price. If you book a legitimately operated charter, you can expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 per flight hour, depending on the size of the jet. In the open market, the average cost of on-demand charter flights is around $25,000.
“Illegal charters can often undercut legitimate operators’ costs because they are not subject to all safety regulations,” the FAA official said. “But while they undercut costs, they also undercut safety and put people’s lives at risk.”
Expect to pay some taxes. The lack of individual taxes can be another red flag, as legitimate charter companies are required to charge various fees. For domestic flights, passengers pay a Federal Excise Tax (FET) of 7.5% plus a domestic segment fee of $4.80 per passenger, per way. (The segment fee can be waived if you’re flying to or from a rural airport that’s more than 75 miles from a major airport and has fewer than 100,000 passengers per year.) If the charter departs from Hawaii or Alaska, there is an additional head tax of $10.60 per passenger.
Passengers on international flights to or from the US, including US possessions such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, pay a $21.10 poll tax in lieu of FET.
“It may surprise you that the cost of chartering a private plane can be comparable to commercial flights,” according to the website of the recently fined Aircraft Resource Management.
But aviation experts say travelers should remember what their grandmothers told them. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.