Commercial airlines are held to strict operating standards as governed by Part 121, and if there are compromises or breaches, they face tall fines. For instance, in 2007, the FAA fined Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) $10.2 million for flying 60,000 flights with cracks in fuselages across its fleet, and the negative press coverage all but ensured that other carriers would take heed.
Passengers using corporate or private aviation might be surprised to learn that they are covered under the same levels of protection every time they board an airplane. While Part 91 and Part 135 operating rules outline business charter operations, those in this category can operate through a wider envelope because they utilize a different regulatory basis. A small handful take advantage of this, running afoul of the law.
The FAA has taken steps to curb these practices. In December 2021, the FAA announced that since June of that year, the agency has:
- Proposed civil penalties totaling more than $5.9 million against more than 14 companies
- Issued an order revoking an air carrier certificate
- Suspended or revoked several pilots’ certificates
In June 2021, a Houston jury ordered Ascent Aviation Solutions and its owner to pay nearly $240,000 in penalties for violating safety regulations after saying the operator used what is known as a “dry lease” to circumvent the industry FAA requirements for direct air carriers.
NATA and ASCF Meet to Outline Safety Practices
Eliminating illegal charters is just one of the priorities the business aviation safety officials plan to address this year. This week, representatives from the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ASCF), and a diverse group of safety practitioners from around the industry gathered for a working roundtable in Washington, D.C., to address a few other vital points.
Before the event, attendees took a poll on the critical safety issues, which returned more than 120 responses. During the event, the group organized the responses into four categories that they would focus on for 2022 onward.
FLYING recently spoke with representatives from NATA and ASCF groups to understand how they’ll address the safety imperatives they faced.
Bob Rulli, chairman of the ASCF, explained that his group and the NATA would collaborate to host several outreach and awareness events around the country during the next 12 months, hoping to interact with the rest of the industry and help them understand these critical issues.
The group will focus on the four categories:
- Human factors
- Ground operations
- Risk factors
- FAA interoperability
“It wasn’t just operators present. We had a very diverse group of young, old, experienced, new entrants, flight operations, FBOs, MROS—the whole ecosystem of general aviation,” Rufli said.
One of the priorities the group discussed with FLYING is the need for widespread adoption of safety management systems in business aviation, as in airline travel. Part 135 operators who offer commuter and on-demand operations with various aircraft types are subject to different requirements.
While business aviation has a low accident rate comparable to airlines, when there is an incident in the business aviation industry, the slew of corrective mandates isn’t like that for commercial air carriers.
This is because these operators aren’t required to have the same safety systems as the airlines. The FAA established the SMS requirements for Part 121 operators (14 CFR Part 5 ) in 2015, giving them less than 40 months to develop and implement acceptable SMS programs.
Yet, the FAA doesn’t mandate all air medical service, air taxi, or on-demand flights to have safety management systems, flight data recorders and systems, and some other safety-critical training practices required of passenger-carrying commercial operations.
Keith DeBerry, a senior vice president at NATA—whose purview is safety and education and who worked as an FAA inspector for more than two decades—led the FAA interoperability segment for the roundtable and provided more context around this safety initiative.
Not All Stakeholders are Happy
DeBerry highlighted the proposed mandate that outgoing FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said would be coming that would now require Part 135 and Part 145 operators to implement safety management systems.
Speaking at a virtual helicopter safety conference in 2020, Dickson announced that the FAA would issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) which would apply SMS to air taxis, air tour operators, repair stations, and parts manufacturers. Expectations are that the proposals could be issued by the second quarter of 2022. Dickson highlighted the aftermath of the accident that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant in early 2020, where NTSB officials found discrepancies in the helicopter operating company’s safety program.
DeBerry said the groups want to stay proactive, since the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of business travel like never before, yet few passengers are aware of the risks they face when they fly with operators who haven’t put together comprehensive safety programs.
“A lot of people made a lot of money over the past couple of years, and they want to spend that money traveling other than on large commercial aircraft,” he said. “In that growth, we saw an opportunity to bring a collective group together to talk about what the future should look like safely, instead of just letting it happen.”
While the proposed rule hasn’t taken effect, NATA and ASCF hope to use the outreach programs in local communities to encourage departments to start considering ways to implement their own SMSs.
But industry groups seem to be at odds. Separately, in a May/June 2021 NBAA article on the looming mandate, the group urged the FAA not to paint with a broad brush as it did with the airlines.
Doug Carr, NBAA’s senior vice president of safety, security, sustainability, and international operations, says Part 5 is not the correct answer for many Part 135 or 145 certificate holders.
“Current FAA SMS tools just don’t fit the broader aviation community,” Carr said.
“FAR Part 5 and the FAA’s Voluntary SMS program absolutely won’t work for small operators. We need a smarter solution that gives the industry a stake in developing effective, scalable SMS programs.”
For that, DeBerry says NATA and ASCF want to work with the FAA to think more critically about encouraging operators to implement these systems, even as there is no one best-practices document that all operators can follow.
Teaching Safety by Department
Rufli, meanwhile, says it will begin with teaching departments the importance of having a safety culture, regardless of their size.
“So much of it comes back to culture. So many people say, ‘well, how can a culture exist in a small company? It’s one thing for a 121 airline to have a culture, but how do you develop that culture in a small business?’ We want to help them build that ‘Pathway to Safety’ tool that includes programs like ASAP, FOQA, data monitoring, and more.”
So what about pilots? The groups say they are keen on finding ways to not only educate the public who want to fly private, but more prominently, pilots. DeBerry says it isn’t just about taking off and landing safely, but all the operations around a flight. From a pilot’s perspective, charter operations require a higher level of FAA pilot training and certification, aircraft maintenance procedures, and operational safety rules, than pilots who may take family or friends for an airplane ride. Pilots should be aware that FAA inspectors perform more frequent periodic checks on air charter companies’ pilots, crewmembers and aircraft than they do on private pilot operations. Moreover Charter companies’ crewmembers must undergo regular proficiency checks to maintain their FAA certifications.
One tool that NATA developed is an illegal charter database that anyone can tap into auditing an operator before they fly with or for them. Those either using business aviation for travel or seeking to fly for an operator can do their due diligence by entering the name of the operator and aircraft tail sign and getting immediate data on the legality of that company’s flights.
In the meantime, the groups will be developing campaigns in collaboration with the FAA that will equip them with the right set of questions to ask of operators or indications to look for around the safety of the charter.