If you are a business traveler who needs to fly an underserved route, or even a vacationer who wants to take a helicopter tour, choosing the safest private air carrier or charter company is critically important, yet nearly impossible to do.
You often pay a much higher price to fly charter, so why is it so tough to find a safe one? Would-be charter customers are given mixed messages when it comes to safety ratings, and I consider those ratings dubious at best. The accident rate for on-demand air carriers is significantly higher than it is for major commercial airlines, making your choice of charter company that much more important.
Major U.S. commercial airlines have had several good years with no fatalities reported since 2009. The same can’t be said of foreign airlines or charter flights. Thirty people died in 12 crashes involving commuter and on-demand carriers in 2013, the latest statistics released by the National Transportation Safety Board show.
What’s behind that Seal of Approval?
Charter companies often rely upon third-party auditing companies to advertise their so-called commitment to safety. Air carriers pay a membership fee to participate in these programs, and if they pass an audit, they can advertise their membership by posting the auditor's seal of approval on their website.
The third-party aviation auditing industry began to grow in the 1990s and it claimed a mission of "promoting safety" among charter and business jet operators. While auditing companies like IS-BAO, Wyvern and ARG/US may indeed provide operational guidelines and tools for improving safety, using a third-party auditing company alone does not guarantee that an air carrier is safe.
Auditors are not paid by the auditing company, but they are independent contractors paid by the air carrier. If the auditor wants to be asked back to audit the carrier's operations in the future, the auditor has incentive to provide a positive report with a passing score.
While there are undoubtedly charter operators who take safety seriously and auditors who are unmotivated by financial gain, the current third-party auditing model – where companies pay to play – undermines the reliability of these certifications.
Think of it like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but for air charter operations. The Federal Trade Commission ultimately attacked the housekeeping seal back in 1941 for being misleading and deceptive. But there's a lot more at stake in aviation safety.
Isn’t there government oversight?
The FAA does inspect charter companies, which are sometimes called Part 135 air carriers in reference to FAA regulations that are applicable to their operations. But the agency only sets minimum standards for safety, and frankly cannot be in all places at all times.
In fact, while FAA requires Safety Management Systems (SMS) for major airlines, SMS is not mandatory for Part 135 carriers. FAA defines SMS as the formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing safety risk and assuring the effectiveness of safety risk controls.
SMS allows air carriers to objectively and consistently identify operational risks and mitigate those risks through informed operational decision making. For example, an air carrier could determine that flying on a rainy day has more inherent risk than flying on a sunny day. One way to minimize that specific risk might be to always use two pilots for flights where inclement weather is reported. If a company couldn't mitigate a significant risk, the flight would be canceled.
Part 135 charter operators know that they typically have less FAA oversight than major airlines, and while some air carriers may be on their best behavior at all times, not all are. Charter companies must find ways to attract business and give themselves a competitive edge. Charter companies may flaunt third-party seals of approval, but simply having an air carrier certificate, an airplane and a website doesn't show the public that the company goes above and beyond FAA minimums.
When something bad happens, these on demand charter companies almost always try to avoid responsibility by claiming all they had to do was meet FAA minimum standards.
Checklist for Flying Charter
If you know you must travel on a charter company, you have a big challenge in selecting a carrier. Talking to the company and asking about SMS, insurance and references may help you decide. Asking them about their insurance coverage is especially important if there is a mishap. Many charter companies have policies that provide only a few hundred thousand dollars even in the event of multiple deaths.
If you can, avoid flying with charter companies. Flying on a major U.S. airline with a proven safety record and FAA oversight is usually a safer bet.