Private jets used to be for Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and business executives. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, many air travelers opted for chartered flights as a way to avoid crowded airport terminals and long security lines. The problem, says the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aviation experts, is that it is too easy for passengers to inadvertently end up on an illegal charter.
“The issue at its core is that folks are representing themselves as certificated charter operators, suggesting that they have met certain safety standards that the FAA has put in place, when in fact they have not,” said Brian Koester, director of flight operations and regulations at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), which represents more than 11,000 companies and professionals in the business aviation community.
Since the beginning of 2021, the FAA has proposed about $9.5 million in civil fines against nearly two dozen companies for conducting charter flights without proper certification or qualified pilots.
Yet the issue is thought to be much more widespread than a few dozen offenders. “We don’t know what we don’t know. We know about the ones we catch,” an FAA official recently told Forbes. “Just as you can’t have a cop 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. Nearly eight in 10 FAA managers overseeing charter flights reported that their offices were understaffed, according to a 2021 report from the Department of Transportation Inspector General.
Earlier this month, the agency proposed a $1 million civil penalty against Aircraft Resource Management for allegedly conducting 78 charter flights in six different twin-engine planes without proper FAA certifications or qualified pilots.
Despite being flagged with a “not secure” warning, the Wichita-based company’s website is otherwise slick, with generic photos of well-heeled executives climbing up aircraft steps. “We make sure our clients travel with speed and efficiency on our private planes and don’t have to hassle with commercial airlines,” says the copy. “Commercial airlines are a hassle and take extra hours of your time, so why not hire an aircraft charter service when your time and travel plans are precious.”
“Folks may not be experienced in purchasing a charter flight,” said Koester. “They may not know what to look for or what questions to ask in order to find out if the operator is certificated or not.”
Here is how to vet a charter flight operator, say aviation experts.
Ask to see the company’s Air Carrier Operating Certificate. Approximately 2,000 air charter operators in the United States have met the comprehensive criteria required to qualify for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Carrier Operating Certificate.
Before you book your flight, Koester advises asking for the company’s Part 135 certificate number. A Part 135 operator provides commercial, non-scheduled aircraft operations such as private air charter flights.
If the company shies away from providing a certificate number, you can consult the FAA’s publicly searchable online database that lists every authorized charter operator in the country, along with every aircraft that these operators can legally operate. Alternatively, contact the appropriate regional FAA office for verification that the charter operation is authorized to carry paying passengers.
Ask to see the pilot’s credentials. Your charter pilot must hold either a Commercial Pilot Certificate or an Air Transport Pilot Certificate issued by the FAA. Make sure the pilot’s license is valid and not out of date.
Ask about safety credentials. Next, ask the operator what SMS — safety management system — certificates and qualifications are in place.
“That tells me that the company not only meets the minimum standard, but they’ve gone above and beyond to ensure that they’re operating as safely as they can,” Koester said. “It’s telling if the company has an SMS in place, and that they’ve been audited and certificated by a third party to show that they’re doing the things they need to do to be safe.”
Be skeptical of a low-low price. When booking a legitimately operated charter, expect to pay anywhere between $3,000 and $15,000 per flying hour, depending on the size of the jet. On the open market, the average cost for on-demand charter flights is around $25,000.
“Illegal charters can often undercut legitimate operators’ costs because they’re not subject to all the safety regulations,” said the FAA official. “But while they’re undercutting costs, they’re also undercutting safety and putting people’s lives in danger.”
Expect to pay some taxes. An absence of itemized taxes can be another red flag, since legitimate charter companies are required to charge various fees. For domestic flights, passengers pay Federal Excise Tax (FET) of 7.5% plus a Domestic Segment Fee of $4.80 per passenger per leg. (The segment fee may be waived if you fly to or from a rural airport, defined as being more than 75 miles from a large airport and having fewer than 100,000 annual passengers.) If the charter departs from Hawaii or Alaska, there’s an additional head tax of $10.60 per passenger.
Passengers on international flights to or from the US, including US possessions like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, pay a head tax of $21.10 instead of the FET.
“It might surprise you that the cost to lease a private plane can be very comparable 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.