Unlike the Airlines You Can Check the Safety of Charter Operations By Judy Sarles After disclosures this year about some domestic air carriers failing to comply with airworthiness directives, business people will likely add the availability of resources to check operational safety to the reasons they are increasingly choosing to charter an aircraft rather than book a commercial flight. In March, the public started to become alarmed about the safety of commercial flights when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered an audit of the maintenance records of every U.S. airline in response to accounts of Southwest Airlines’ noncompliance with required safety inspections. Even though the FAA’s safety audit found there was 99 percent airline compliance with its airworthiness directives, Southwest, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines added to the public’s flying jitters by canceling a number of flights in order to conduct unscheduled aircraft safety inspections. Along with the concern about the safety of commercial flights, one of the chief reasons business people are turning to charter is convenience. They can travel on their own schedule not on an airline’s schedule. Charter often makes it easier than the airlines to get to out-of-the-way places because airline destinations are mostly major cities. By chartering an aircraft, the expense of overnight lodging, meals, and car rental is frequently eliminated. Charter travel is also attractive to business people because it is not restricted by many of the annoyances of airline flights, such as long lines at security checkpoints, overbooked and missed connecting flights, late arrivals and delayed departures, confined seating, and lost or misdirected baggage. Although the concern about the safety of commercial flights and convenience make it easy for business people to embrace charter, they still need to verify a charter company’s safety records and the qualifications of its flight crew. What separates most charter operators from the commercial airlines is that the charter operators voluntarily submit to third-party safety audits and information about their safety records is readily available. Business people should inquire about safety prior to booking a charter flight. Many of them never ask questions about the charter operator, the flight crew, or the aircraft. “A lot of times a business client will just assume because we’re a certified charter operator that’s good enough for them,” says Dwayne McMurry, director of operations at Corporate Flight Management in Smyrna, Tenn. For their well being, business people should find out whether they are reserving a flight with a top- rated charter operator like Corporate Flight Management, which aims for the highest safety standards possible, or one that barely fulfills FAA standards. Charter operators serving the public must be certified by the FAA. They have to comply with Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) for operations, maintenance, and safety, and their pilots are required to have specific qualifications. The FARs set a level for crew rest, physical examinations, and a stringent anti-drug program. Business people should check whether the charter operator has a current FAA Air Carrier Operating Certificate. The FAA recommends that charter customers ask what name appears on the certificate and what the certificate number is. They ought to find out the name and telephone number of the FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) that monitors the certificate and the name of the FAA principle operations inspector, who can verify that the operator meets FAA safety standards. It’s important to know whether the FAA has put any limitations on the charter operations, such as prohibiting international flights or trips under instrument flight rules. Third-Party Auditors To find charter operators that strive to surpass the FAA’s minimum safety requirements, some business people rely on safety reports from third-party auditors, such as Aviation Research Group/U.S. (ARG/US) and Wyvern. Charter companies hire ARG/US or Wyvern to perform on-site safety inspections. Outstanding results from an ARG/US on-site safety audit may lead to the award of a Gold Plus or Platinum (the highest rating) certificate, which is good for two years. Customers of Wyvern depend on The Wyvern Report to determine which charter operators to use. ARG/US offers several options for evaluating the safety of a charter operation. ARG/US subscribers have access to Charter Evaluation & Qualification (CHEQ), an online program with a searchable database that has the histories and safety ratings of U.S. charter operators. In addition to safety reports, CHEQ provides information on a pilot’s experience, pilot certificates, aircraft registrations, operator certificates, accident and incident reports, enforcement actions, and operator ownership and management. Nonsubscribers can use the CHEQ system but in limited ways. Data compiled for the CHEQ program forms the basis for the ARG/US executive summary, assigned rating, and graphic representation of the operator’s three-year safety rating trend. The CHEQ program includes TripCHEQ, a service that immediately confirms aircraft and flight-crew qualifications for a scheduled charter flight. The program supplies data on pilot certifications, aircraft type ratings, accidents, incidents, violations, operator certificates, operational control of an aircraft, and aircraft insurance levels. Charter operators that meet the Wyvern Standard are included in The Wyvern Report, an online safety information service containing audit reports and details about the company, aircraft, pilots, and insurance coverage. The Wyvern Standard uses measurements developed with the assistance of The Wyvern Customer Advisory Board to evaluate safety in all areas of a charter operation, including maintenance. Charter operators that are Wyvern members have access to Wyvern’s Pilot & Aircraft Safety Survey (PASS) online system that produces certificates for customers that confirm a scheduled flight’s aircraft and crew have met The Wyvern Standard. Questions to Ask The few business people who ask charter operators questions about safety usually make just a small number of inquiries. They typically ask about pilot qualifications, the number of flight hours pilots have, and the last time the pilots received training. That’s about it. Other questions business people ought to ask charter operators include what company provides your liability insurance coverage? And how much coverage do you carry? Once the amount of insurance coverage is known, charter customers will have to decide whether they are comfortable with it. Charter operators should have at least $10 million in liability coverage. Some charter companies carry liability limits of $50 million or more. Business people also need to know how long a charter operator has been in business, the type and age of the charter company’s aircraft, and what kind of training pilots receive. Is it training in the aircraft or simulator-based training? It is important to ask whether the training is above the level required by the FAA. Customers should also find out how many hours each crew member has accumulated in the make/model of the aircraft and be certain that pilots with little experience in an aircraft are accompanied by pilots who have much more experience. Charter customers should ask whether flight duty and rest regulations will prevent the pilots and crew on the departing flight from being assigned to the return flight. If that is the case, customers will need to review the qualifications of the second set of pilots and crew. The National Business Aviation Association suggests that customers look at the appearance of the aircraft they are chartering. It may need repairs or a good cleaning. Does the aircraft have updated avionics? Business people should ask whether the aircraft has gone through any major refurbishments that may affect its performance. Inquiries should be made about the maintenance status of the aircraft and how a maintenance incident would be handled if one occurs during flight. Business people ought to find out whether the aircraft is maintained by a factory service center, a local repair station, or in-house mechanics. If a factory service center isn’t doing the maintenance, are the mechanics well-trained to work on a specific aircraft? In addition, it’s essential to know whether charter operators have had any aircraft accidents, incidents, or FAA violations in the past five years, and if so, whether the operators have done anything to strengthen their safety procedures. It’s easy to examine a charter operator’s safety records because they are posted on the National Transportation Safety Board Web site (www.ntsb.gov). Business people scheduling an international flight should ask whether operators are authorized to fly to a particular country and whether the operators have experience flying into, within and out of that country. Does the operator need to take additional security and safety measures when a charter flight travels to another country? If a flight will pass over difficult terrain, such as a mountainous region, or land at an airport with a difficult approach, customers ought to know how well-trained the crew is to handle the situation. Even if they are not ARG/US or Wyvern customers, business people can still ask charter operators whether or not they have had a third-party audit. If an audit hasn’t been performed, it doesn’t mean the charter operator is disreputable, it just means an audit hasn’t been requested. If an audit has been performed, then business people can ask what ARG/US rating the charter operation received or if the operation met The Wyvern Standard. More Ways to Check Safety Some major corporations are very sophisticated about safety and hire their own auditors or send out their flight department’s chief pilot to do onsite audits of charter operators. “We were involved with a Fortune 500 company that hired an outside consultant,” says Elis Olsson, director of operations at Martinair Inc., a Richmond, Va.-based charter operator. “He was not with ARG/US or Wyvern; it was just an individual with a lot of aviation experience.” The International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) has on its Web site (www.ibac.org) a list of accredited auditors knowledgeable about aviation operations. Auditors meeting specific qualifications and with the right experience can be accredited by IBAC. A few businesses use a questionnaire to acquire the information they need about the safety program of a charter operator. The questionnaires’ questions are similar to those that have been mentioned above. “The questions in the questionnaires that we get are very good questions,” says Thomas T. “Mike” Mickel Jr., president and CEO of Dominion Aviation Services, a charter company also based in Richmond. “Someone has obviously put some time into thinking about what really means the most.” To find a safe charter operator, some businesses rely on word of mouth or recommendations posted on message boards by other businesses. Often businesses turn to their regular charter operator for suggestions. For instance, an East Coast charter operator may know of a dependable charter operator on the West Coast. Safety cannot be taken for granted when business people charter an aircraft. By asking several questions, they should have a better idea of a charter operator’s reliability and degree of concern for safety. Once they have that information, they can sit back and enjoy a flight free of the safety concerns and inconvenience of a commercial flight.