Industry Fighting Illegal Charters
By Kathryn B. Creedy
With the uberization of private aviation and advanced private aviation booking technology, the private aviation industry is working to stem the growth of illegal charters that threaten the lives of the passengers who book them.
On the frontlines is the US National Air Transportation Association (NATA) whose Senior Vice President Ryan Waguespack spoke at last week’s CARIBAVIA conference.
“Illegal charters have become one of the top issues in private aviation,” he told conference attendees. “The best practices for private aviation are clashing with the sharing economy culture. With the pandemic and the rise in popularity of private aviation as passengers avoid commercial airlines, we’ve seen a significant uptick. We were getting three or four reports per month prior to the pandemic and it is now four to five a week.”
The problem is so acute an illegal charter task force was set up in 2018 to quantify the issue and create education campaigns for industry and users.
“It is about the careless, clueless and the criminal and it is now a global effort to change the perception of what was once called ‘gray charters,’” said Waguespack. “The careless are people who should know better while the clueless just don’t know any better. Of course, the criminal is the main focus, because once they are caught, they just reinvent themselves.”
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now has a hotline for reporting illegal charters but Waguespack said its ability to respond rapidly to reports or to investigate suspected illegal charters is limited. And it is also part of the problem given the length of time is takes to processes those wanting to be compliant.
“It is driving people out of compliance,” Waguespack concluded. “Small companies are trying to do it right, but the FAA gets in the way.”
Meanwhile, industry has developed its own education campaign for owner/operators and pilots who have the most to lose by not being compliant. A separate program seeks to educate users about illegal charters including the red flags to look for. The industry is getting everyone involved from FBOs to operators and clients to report suspicious charters.
“Those red flags include an operator with a high number of short-term dry leases,” he said. “Another flag is flights advertised at costs far below those for legitimate operations or flights claiming to be under cost sharing exemption but aircraft owners are not present. Illegal charters also bill themselves as ‘sales demos’ or ‘flight training.’ Those involved need to understand the risks and exposure.”
He noted it costs 40% more to operate legally because the aircraft must be certificated, training and maintenance programs and other systems must be in place.
The needle for cracking down on illegal charters has shifted with FAA stepping up enforcement.
“The Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection also see illegal charters as a serious security threat and are getting more aggressive,” he said. “In addition, they are looking for related illegal activities such as drug and human trafficking. They know 70% of flights coming from Europe to the US are illegal so they are being trained by FAA to ask the right questions about how the aircraft is being operated.
“Owner/operators must be vigilant or they are taking serious insurance and financial risks,” he continued referring people to NATA’s Avoid Illegal Charters website. “Foreign entities found to be operating in the US may be subject to criminal penalty including federal prison. In addition, NATA is bringing together global regulatory agencies to educate them on what is happening and what to do about it.”
One attendee noted the FAA is doing more than Europe and noted in the UK there is an operator running illegal charters out in the open.
“What can you do to avoid illegal charters,” Waguespack asked. “If you see something say something. If you suspect someone of offering an illegal leasing scheme, collect all the factual information you can, take notes on conversations with their customers and document their advertisements or sales pitches and file a report. This helps FAA follow through because it is now required to report to Congress on its actions surrounding illegal charters.”
He advised articulating the safety-based differences between illegal charters and legal operations including training and oversight, maintenance programs, equipment and personnel background checks.
“Explain the liability ramifications to the customer participating in an illegal charter,” he said. “Educate them on what to look for and what needs to be filed with authorities for a charter to be legal. Contract pilots should be aware of the red flags because they could lose their license.”
NATA has resources on its website to help educate users and operators alike