Editor's Desk: Protecting the public from witches

I don't believe in witches. But I think some people high up in the FAA and Department of Transportation do. Maybe even some of the folks in Homeland Security.

I'm speaking of metaphorical witches, of course, or to be more specific, improperly run air charter operators. The FAA's and DOT's current search for them appears not unlike the hunts for "real" witches in the late 1600s.

In less than two weeks in early October, AMI Jet Charter-a first-class, well run, highly respected, accident-free, much-admired, ARG/US Platinum- rated charter operator-had its Part 135 operating certificate suspended and then revoked by emergency FAA edict because the agency claimed it was unsafe. In this issue, Matt Thurber explains how this bust went down. His article in our sister publication, Aviation International News goes into more detail.

Let it be said from the start-the FAA's shutdown of AMI Jet Charter was not about safety. The FAA did not start its investigation of the operator seven months ago because it had an accident or was suspected of operating in an unsafe manner. Operational control was the agency's concern. In its October 12 revocation order, the FAA said, AMI "does not have operational control of the flights purportedly operated under the authority of its certificate, a situation that poses an unacceptable risk to safety in air commerce. Under these circumstances, the immediate protection of the public is paramount."

But behind this was another concern-foreign ownership. In a nutshell, the FAA reasoned that AMI Jet Charter's operations were not safe because, the FAA said, foreign owners had operational control over AMI's aircraft. TAG Aviation USA owns 49 percent of AMI Jet Charter. TAG Aviation USA is a subsidiary of TAG Aviation Holding, an entity controlled by privately held Geneva-based TAG Holding. The principals of TAG Holding are brothers Mansour and Aziz Ojjeh, president and vice president, respectively.

The founder of TAG was the late Akram Ojjeh, who has been described as "an industrialist and a negotiator." Born in 1923 in Damascus, Syria (though some reports say Baghdad and others claim he was Saudi Arabian, probably because he was granted citizenship in that country by King Abdul Aziz), Ojjeh went to France in 1940 on a scholarship, eventually obtaining five university degrees. He was awarded the French Legion d'Honneur. His wide-ranging business interests involved, among other things, construction, real estate, resorts and a French regional airline and included companies in the U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Sudan. He also negotiated sales of armaments between French companies and Saudi Arabia.

According to a 1978 New York Times article, "Mr. Ojjeh dislikes the term 'arms dealer.' He comments: 'After all, we do not buy and sell and stock arms. We are not an agent or an intermediary. We help, in our small way, to sell capital goods and equipment as well as arms.'" Akram Ojjeh died in 1991, bequeathing his not-inconsiderable empire to his sons Mansour and Aziz. Both are Swiss citizens, were educated in the U.S. and are now in their fifties. I have been told by people who know the Ojjehs personally that they are upstanding citizens in every regard.

TAG Aviation Holding has been involved in business aviation for 45 years. It is Europe's largest business-jet charter company and provides management, maintenance, acquisition and sales services. It has been the exclusive Middle East sales agent for Bombardier for 30 years. It operates London's Farnborough Airport under a 99-year lease and owns the FBO there. It runs an FBO in Geneva and provides handling at other airports. Through TAG Aviation USA, it is a minority ownership partner with Cessna of fractional provider CitationShares. It also provides charter, management and brokerage services in Australia and Asia.

But TAG's charter and management operations in the U.S., through AMI Jet Charter, are now finished. Reeling from the FAA's investigation, suspension and revocation order, TAG Aviation Holding announced on October 22 that it had agreed in principle with Sentient Flight Group for Sentient to purchase the aircraft management business of TAG Aviation USA. The deal is expected to close before the end of 2007. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

A former state trooper once told me that if he followed a car long enough, he could always find a violation that gave him reasonable cause to pull the car over. It's the same in aviation, and the FAA and DOT are the cops.

Did the FAA revoke AMI's charter certificate because it failed to show it had operational control, or was this just a smoke screen? Did AMI Jet Charter do something so insidious that it deserved to be summarily shut down? Or are the FAA, DOT and other government agencies hunting for witches under the guise of protecting the public? We may never know the answers.

What is certain is that users of business aviation need to be ready to ask their providers the hard questions and demand good answers about operational control and ownership.

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