PPrivate jets used to be for Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and business people. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, many air travelers turned to charter flights to avoid busy airport terminals and long security lines. The problem, say the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aviation experts, is that it’s too easy for passengers to accidentally end up on an illegal charter.
“The problem at its core is that people pass themselves off as certified charter airlines, suggesting they meet certain safety standards set by the FAA, when in fact they don’t,” said Brian Koester, director of flight operations and regulation at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), which represents more than 11,000 companies and professionals in the business aviation community.
As of early 2021, the FAA has issued approximately $9.5 million in civil fines against nearly two dozen companies for operating charter flights without proper certification or qualified pilots.
Still, the problem is believed to be much more widespread than a few dozen offenders. “We don’t know what we don’t know. We know who we’re catching,” an FAA official recently said UKTN. “Just like you can’t have an agent on every street corner, we can’t have an inspector meet every flight.”
Not all of the agency’s 4,000 safety inspectors focus on charter operations. According to a 2021 report from the Department of Transportation Inspector General, nearly eight in 10 FAA executives who oversee charter flights reported that their offices were understaffed.
Earlier this month, the agency proposed a $1 million civil fine against Aircraft Resource Management for allegedly operating 78 charter flights in six different twin-engine aircraft without proper FAA certifications or qualified pilots.
Despite the “not safe” warning, the Wichita-based company’s website has continued to slick, featuring generic photos of well-to-do executives climbing the steps of an airplane. “We make sure our customers travel quickly and efficiently on our private jets and don’t have the hassle of commercial airlines,” the copy says. “Commercial airlines are a hassle and take up extra hours of your time, so why not hire an airline charter if your time and travel plans are precious.”
“People may not have experience buying a charter flight,” Koester said. “They may not know what to look for or what questions to ask to find out if the operator is certified or not.”
Here’s how to vet a charter flight operator, say aviation experts.
Ask for the company’s Air Carrier Operating Certificate. Approximately 2,000 charter airlines in the United States have met the extensive criteria required to qualify for an Air Carrier Operating Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Before booking your flight, Koester advises asking for the company’s Part 135 certificate number. A Part 135 operator offers commercial, non-scheduled aircraft operations, such as private charter flights.
If the company is shy about providing a certificate number, you can refer to the FAA’s publicly searchable online database that lists all authorized charter airlines in the country, along with all the aircraft these operators are legally allowed to operate. You can also contact the appropriate regional FAA office to verify that the charter airline is authorized to carry fare-paying passengers.
Ask to see the pilot’s credentials. Your charter pilot must hold a Commercial Pilot Certificate or an Air Transport Pilot Certificate issued by the FAA. Make sure the pilot’s license is valid and not expired.
Ask for security credentials. Then ask the operator which SMS – safety management system – certificates and qualifications are present.
“That tells me that the company not only meets the minimum standard, but that they have done everything they can to ensure that they operate as safely as possible,” said Koester. “It shows if the company has a text message and that they’ve been audited and certified by a third party to show they’re doing what they need to be doing to be safe.”
Be skeptical about a low-low price. If you book a legitimately operated charter, expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 per flight hour, depending on the size of the jet. In the open market, the average cost for on-demand charter flights is about $25,000.
“Illegal charters can often undercut legitimate operators’ costs because they are not subject to all safety regulations,” the FAA official said. “But while they undermine costs, they also undermine safety and endanger human lives.”
Expect to pay some taxes. The lack of itemized taxes can be another red flag as legitimate charter airlines must charge different fees. For domestic flights, passengers pay a federal excise tax (FET) of 7.5% plus a domestic segment fee of $4.80 per passenger per leg. (The segment surcharge may be waived if you are flying to or from a nationwide airport, defined as more than 75 miles from a major airport and with fewer than 100,000 passengers per year.) If the charter departs from Hawaii or Alaska, there is an additional head tax of $10.60 per passenger.
Passengers on international flights to or from the US, including US possessions such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, pay a $21.10 head tax in lieu of the FET.
“You may be surprised to learn that the cost of leasing a private jet can be very similar to flying commercially,” says the website of the recently fined Aircraft Resource Management.
But aviation experts say travelers should remember what their grandmothers told them. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.