Following more than a decade of contemplation and inertia, the U.S. Department of Transportation finally served up its long-awaited rule addressing the role of air charter brokers, and enacting some requirements on brokers and charter operators.
DOT’s product covers just 24 pages. It is thin gruel and leaves much to be desired. But it’s required reading if you’re traveling on charter aircraft or booking charter trips for others. If nothing else, it will alert you to what brokers and operators DO NOT have to tell you – unless you specifically ask them. It details deceptive and prohibited practices of which you should be aware, and most can be found in the last six pages.
The catalyst for the new rule, effective Feb. 14, 2019, was an NTSB recommendation made in 2006. The board said customers and passengers on Part 135 flights should be informed of the name of the entity with operational control of the flight, including any “Doing Business As” names in the Operations Specifications, the name of the aircraft owner, and the names of any brokers involved in arranging the flight.
That recommendation came from NTSB’s investigation of the November 28, 2004 fatal crash of a Canadair CL-600 during takeoff from the Montrose, Colorado Regional Airport.
NTSB detailed numerous egregious mistakes, including a bad case of “get-going-itis” by the pilots. The CVR recording was clear: the pilots can be heard rationalizing that they could take off on a snow-contaminated runway at an airport situated 5,759 feet above sea level during a heavy snow storm in a snow-covered airplane that had not been de-iced. It was folly.
NTSB found the plane’s left wing stalled due to snow and ice contamination; it crashed just nine seconds after liftoff.
There was extensive news media coverage of the crash which occurred on Thanksgiving weekend, carrying Dick Ebersol, then chairman of NBC Sports, and his two sons, one of whom died from his injuries.
Member Deborah A.P. Hersman attached a concurring opinion to NTSB’s report, observing that some Part 135 air charter companies “operate jets on a shoestring budget with inadequately experienced or trained crews” and warned “the air charter consumer has few practical options for finding out the differences between safe and unsafe operators…”
General Electric owned NBC back then and Hersman noted General Electric Corporate Air Transport (GECAT) arranged the trip for Ebersol and his family. GECAT regularly booked trips with an operator named Key Air, but it had no suitable planes available that weekend. So Key Air brokered the trip to another operator, Air Castle, which leased the CL-600 from yet another operator.
Hersman said Air Castle was approved by the independent safety rating firm Wyvern, but, “the crew used by Air Castle on the accident aircraft was not.” GECAT “undoubtedly believed it was diligent in insisting on certain standards for the air charter operator,” Hersman said, “but it did not get what it probably thought it was getting; it did not get a Wyvern-approved crew and it is not clear from the information in the docket whether the aircraft was Wyvern-approved. If an experienced corporate travel organization like [GECAT] can be so fooled, how easy is it for others with perhaps far less savvy and market power to hire air charter services that are less safe than they expect?”
Thirteen years after NTSB’s final report, the concerns Hersman voiced then still resonate, even though most legitimate 135 operators now aspire to much higher safety standards.
But customers have to know who they are dealing with. Seeking the lowest quote for a trip from someone you’ve never met, and don’t know anything about, is asking for trouble. Shady operators who skimp on training and flout FAA regulations prey on the uninformed. BAA
David Collogan has covered aviation in Washington, DC for more than four decades. This award-wining journalist is known as one of the most knowledgeable, balanced, wary, and trusted journalists in the aviation community.