Are Your Charter Flights Safe?

Thanks largely to stringent regulations, accidents are rare. You could help make them even rarer.

If you charter aircraft, you may be wondering about the safety of your flights. The good news is that charter represents one of the safest forms of non-airline flying. That’s because charter operators employ professional and experienced crews, and because the Federal Aviation Administration has always overseen passenger-paying flights more strictly than private operations.

In the U.S., the FAA’s federal aviation regulations (FARs) mandate safety rules for all aircraft. Part 91 is the least demanding of the FARs, providing great flexibility in operational requirements, training, and maintenance. Companies that fly aircraft in which the passengers own fractional portions are regulated under Part 91K, a subsection of Part 91 but with tighter requirements. On-demand air charter (aka air taxi) operators fall under the stricter Part 135, the regulation that also applies to scheduled commuter airliners with 10 or fewer passenger seats. Finally, the FAA requires the major airlines to follow Part 121, the most demanding of the FARs.

Thanks largely to the Part 135 rules, only three of the 35 fatal accidents involving U.S. business jets between 2010 and 2020 concerned charter flights, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Those charter accidents claimed the lives of 18 crew and passengers, with a single 2015 accident accounting for nine of the fatalities.

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The NTSB—a consistent voice for upgrading charter regulations—concluded that if the operator in that 2015 crash had had a Safety Management System (SMS), cockpit voice recorder (CVR), or flight data recorder (FDR), either voluntarily or by regulation, the accident might have been prevented. Another charter accident in which the aircraft (a large turbine helicopter) did not have, and was not required to have, a CVR and FDR killed the pilot and eight passengers. That 2020 accident and its on-going investigation have received considerable media coverage because one of the victims was former professional basketball player Kobe Bryant.

Exceeding the Minimums

A key safety factor for any operator is whether it elects to exceed the minimum regulatory requirements. For example, many Part 135 charter companies voluntarily operate to the higher standards of Part 121 regulations even though this increases expenses and reduces operational flexibility. Among other things, Part 121 calls for shorter flight duty times combined with longer crew rest periods; additional operational constraints when flying in inclement weather; extended aircraft downtimes due to expanded maintenance requirements; more frequent pilot training; extensive manual upgrades; and having an SMS, CVR, and FDR. Part 121 also requires two-pilot crews, though virtually all turbine charter aircraft (except some helicopters) are flown with two pilots as well.

Based on its analysis of on-demand air-taxi operator accidents, the NTSB has for more than 20 years recommended that the FARs for charter operations of airplanes and helicopters be made to more closely resemble those for the airlines, the undisputed safest segment of civilian flying. However, NTSB recommendations are just that—recommendations. The FAA doesn't adopt all suggestions, but it must provide reasons for rejecting them in part or in full.    

High on the NTSB's wish list is a requirement that operators have safety management systems, but the FAA doesn’t mandate them for all air taxi or on-demand flight operators, as it does for Part 121 carriers. An SMS is a formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing and tracking safety practices to minimize accidents, incidents, and regulatory violations. Such systems help to instill a strong safety culture within operations. The FAA has a detailed SMS template available, and several independent companies and member organizations develop custom SMSs to fit an operator's size and complexity.  

Safety equipment is another key factor in accident prevention. The FAA requires flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders (the so-called “black boxes” that actually are painted orange) only on larger charter aircraft—multiengine turbine airplanes and helicopters with 10 or more passenger seats—and airliners. The agency mandates CVRs for multiengine turbine airplanes and helicopters with six or more passenger seats and when two pilots are required.

FDRs continuously preserve nearly 100 aircraft performance and system parameters. CVRs catch not only communications between the crew and air traffic controllers but also aural alerts and other sounds emanating from the instrument panel. Investigators use these recorders to help them determine the cause of mishaps and to make recommendations intended to aid in preventing similar accidents.  

Safety Audits Spot Problems

Many charter operators subscribe to safety audits that several independent companies and associations offer. In an audit, experts examine accident/incident history, pilot and support staff hiring practices, flying and maintenance procedures, safety and risk management policies, and more. 

Afterwards, the auditor usually presents the operator with a report that rates the findings and suggests improvements. Auditors typically reinspect operators at specified intervals to verify continued compliance with standards and recommendations. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also provides non-punitive audits covering its required employee working conditions, fire prevention, hangar operations, and maintenance equipment.  

As a customer, you can play an important role in charter operator safety by giving your business only to companies that have evidence of complying with the minimum requirements or that—as the NTSB suggests—go beyond the minimum. You can obtain safety and regulatory compliance information from such organizations as the National Business Aviation Association, National Air Transportation Association, Helicopter Association International, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Air Charter Safety Foundation, and Flight Safety Foundation. 

The NTSB suggests that before you book a flight, you should ask these questions:

  • Can I see a copy of the operator's Part 135 certificate?
  • Will the company share its audit results?
  • What is its accident or regulatory violation history?
  • Does the operator have an SMS program?
  • Do its aircraft have FDRs and CVRs?
  • To what safety organizations does the operator belong?
  • Can these organizations provide a safety review of their members?

You should be able to answer some of these questions by visiting the websites of the organizations mentioned above. NATA also educates the flying public about illegal charters, which the NTSB says represent "an increasing safety concern.” In addition, the FAA has a website that can help you identify safe air charter operations as well as unsafe carriers.

“By doing a little homework, you can make an informed decision about boarding a Part 135 flight,” advises the NTSB. “You might also be making these flights more secure for other passengers by ensuring operators are aware that their customers are demanding safer operations."



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