Here's a basic safety checklist for folks who prefer to fly private


If you choose to fly on private charter planes, make sure you check the company’s operating certificates first, to ensure your own safety. — Unsplash

If you board an airline flight, a train or even a taxi, you can be reasonably sure that government safety regulators are looking over the operator’s shoulder.

The same is true for an air-charter flight, if the operator has been certified by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious which charter companies are flying legally.

Charter plane companies that sidestep federal safety regulations have surged in recent years, according to a Bloomberg News review of federal enforcement cases, public documents and interviews with government and industry officials. In some cases, it has resulted in easily preventable fatal crashes, according to accident investigators.

“If you decide that chartering an aircraft is right for you, do your research,” the FAA says on a website devoted to improving charter safety. “Illegal air charter operations pose serious safety hazards, and the FAA works aggressively to identify and shut down rogue operators.”

Marci Wilhelm, a businesswoman from Florida in the US who nearly died in a 2018 crash that killed two pilots, said she had no idea the jet she boarded wasn’t legally permitted to be flown for hire.

“It’s very much a buyer-beware situation and you need to know what to look at,” Wilhelm said in a recent interview. “We were very new to air travel. We hadn’t done it very much and didn’t know what questions to ask and what to look for.”

In Wilhelm’s case, she was flying with a licensed charter company, but the plane it was using wasn’t listed on its FAA certificate. A review of the aircraft listing would have revealed something was wrong.

Industry groups and the FAA, combating a wave of what they call illegal operators, have developed resources for travellers who want to hire their own flight, including a list of warning signs.

“Do some checking,” says the National Air Transportation Association, a trade group representing charter operators.

There are some basic steps customers can take to ensure FAA safety rules apply to their flight and spot red flags:

1. Ask to see the business’s “Air Carrier Certificate” or “Operating Certificate”. The FAA advises looking elsewhere if the flight operator refuses.

2. Each individual aircraft flown by a commercial operator has to be listed on its certificate. Look up the aircraft’s registration number (located near the tail, it always starts with “N” in the US) to ensure it is legal.

3. Various third-party groups conduct audits of charter companies to ensure they’re legal and, in some cases, adhere to even higher safety requirements than federal regulations. You can ask an operator if they’ve been approved by such audits or pay to have their company screened. These audit groups include the Air Charter Safety Foundation, Wyvern and Argus International.

4. Federal law requires payment of a 7.5% excise tax. If an operator isn’t charging it or the overall price seems too low, then start asking questions. “If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” the FAA says.

5. Other warning signs include a pilot or operator coaching passengers on what to say if an FAA inspector arrives; or having to sign a document or contract that says the customer has “operational control,” which should be the responsibility of the charter company. – Bloomberg

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