Wyvern's Art Dawley

This CEO oversees a risk-assessment and audit business that assures flight operations are safe.

Art Dawley is CEO of Wyvern Consulting, which for 25 years has provided risk-assessment and safety-audit services for the air charter industry and its customers. The U.S.-based group has established the well-regarded Wingman Standard, a set of guidelines intended to give charter customers peace of mind about the level of safety they can expect from aircraft operators and their flight crews.

Dawley knows the intricacies of private aviation safety, having worked in the field since the mid-1980s. He started his career as the captain with a Los Angeles-area charter company and rose to become director of flight operations for Peterson Aviation. Then, in 1998, he established DreamWorks Studios’ flight department for film director Stephen Spielberg, operating a Bombardier Global Express and a Gulfstream G550.

In 2004, Dawley left Spielberg to form his own air charter and aircraft repair business in Costa Rica and began providing Spanish-speaking safety auditors to support Wyvern. Nine years later, Wyvern invited him to run the company.

BJT visited Dawley at Wyvern’s headquarters in Yardley, Pennsylvania to find out why private aviation consumers need to be concerned about safety and how they can reduce their exposure to risk.

Why should charter customers care that operators pass a Wyvern audit? Isn’t itenough that the FAA approves them?
The minimum standard in the industry is regulatory [FAA Part 135 regulations]. Safety management currently is not required, and that’s what the Wyvern Wingman audit focuses on.

What about the International Standards-Business Aircraft Operations [IS-BAO], developed by the International Business Aviation Council? Isn’t it sufficient that operators comply with that, since it does cover safety?
The benchmark in the IS-BAO process is a strong one; we use it as the basis for much of what we do [but it]…is [just] a snapshot [of that operator’s safety standard] at that time.
In the Wyvern Wingman program, that is only the beginning of the process. The pilots, the aircraft, and the organization all have to continually supply updated information to our system to ensure that benchmarks are being met. Those benchmarks have to do with pilot experience, maintenance practices, and insurance. We do continual background checks that are not supplied in a regular audit. I think that the end users like to know that practices are continually being assessed.

What safety-management-systemfactors do you monitor?
For the most part, we are looking for hazard reporting from flight crews about potential unsafe conditions. An audit can also involve reports from the dispatch department. We are looking for safety communication in the organization and for effective recordkeeping. The process also involves setting key performance indicators, safety targets, and how to handle communications, such as safety meeting minutes being distributed throughout the organization.

We see a lot of conflict between sales and operations departments, where they need to sell a long charter that bumps up against a very long duty day or potentially exceeds it. If there are creative and legal ways of making that flight happen, [it’s important that] the flight crewmember still has the opportunity to express concern in a non-punitive and confidential environment.

Do you find that’s sometimes not the case?
We run into cultures that handle issues like that in a different manner. Safety management should be adopted in a similar manner on a global basis. In the U.S., there are programs designed to encourage operators to report issues like that without fear of punitive action by the authorities, unless it involves criminal activity or gross negligence.

How do you keep your safety standards up to date?
We have attempted to evolve our programs so that they adapt to changes in the industry. As training gets better, we reassess the standards. Do you really assess a 20,000-hour pilot the same way you would a 5,000-hour pilot? Should the guy who built his career in the ’70s and ’80s with fewer training resources and avionics capabilities be seen in the same way as a pilot today?

We want to ensure that [our standard] is not so restrictive that operators that meet similar operating practices and benchmarks but may not meet what we required in the past can be included in our preferred vendor program. We use the data in the ongoing collection and analysis to make those types of calls. It is our hope that any weakness or nonconformity in the audit will get corrected as part of a continuous-improvement program and that the operator ultimately becomes successful inside of our vendor pool.

Should private aviation consumers flying in certain parts of the world be particularly concerned about which operators they use?
They should be very concerned. In certain regions, the gray charter market exists [in which operators who lack legal approval to fly commercially provide lift]. You have a lot of money coming into emerging markets—people investing in aircraft and using them in ways that are not under a regulated framework. Our clients expect that when they go to these regions they at least will be able to assess that there are operators that have complied with the same benchmarks as their local charter operators. But I want to add that the gray-market area is also a problem in the U.S. and Europe.

Might some operators just not be aware that what they are doing is illegal?
For the most part, they are very aware but there are significant pressures to offset operating expenses for their aircraft. Our idea is not necessarily to spotlight those people that do not [operate legally], but to spotlight and promote those people that do embrace top-rated practices.

The whole concept of promoting a just culture inside the organization starts at the top. It is incumbent upon top management to promote safety, with a safety policy letter that is signed by them and holds them accountable for the safety approach of that organization.

What risks might passengers be exposing themselves to if they use operators who don’t promote safety?  
Without regulatory oversight at a very minimum, and hopefully a third-party assessment from Wyvern Wingman or something similar, they have absolutely no benchmark to assess the person they are getting on a plane with. They can’t confirm the operator’s legal status in the country or whether the pilots work fulltime for the organization. They can’t confirm whether the pilots have been trained, whether they have embraced any type of safety management, or the maintenance status of the aircraft. There have been some high-profile accidents in the last several years that bear out the importance of that.

What sort of fail rate do you have for Wyvern Wingman audits?
Before we sell an audit service, we make sure that we go through the Wingman Standard step-by-step so the operator understands the expectations. There is an occasional situation in which an operator is not successful against the benchmark. If [that’s because of] what we consider minor non-conformities, they are asked to submit a remedial action plan, generally within 30 days, [so the] non-conformity…can be addressed. Then we reassess. The failure rate is probably less than 10 percent because the expectations are laid out clearly.

The business aviation industry is such a closely knit community. How can people be sure that the audit process is independent?
It is important to stress that we have a small pool of auditors that have direct relationships with Wyvern. They don’t work for other third-party organizations. We have a product called PASS—Pilot and Aircraft Safety Survey—which is a mission-specific  report card issued prior to a charter flight. That basically validates the people flying on the aircraft, the organization, its audit results, insurance, and those types of things. There has never been a fatality in a PASS-compliant flight.

One trend we’re seeing in the charter market is the emergence of companies using digital technology to provide ways for people to book their own flights. Do you think that removing human interaction with a broker from the equation means that consumers might not pose the right questions?

I have great concern about that. Brokers serve a valid purpose in providing clients with the information we talk about in the Wyvern program. The responsibility of any charter broker is to make risk management and safety their objective.

Do you encounter brokers who don’t do that?
It is a non-regulated industry; all you need is a telephone and computer to get into the business. Again, several high-profile accidents have resulted from brokers that obviously had little experience and certainly didn’t intend to make safety and risk management their final objective.

We spend significant time trying to track down the brokers that are promoting certain operators as Wingman compliant [when in fact they aren’t]. If there were a mechanism on an online booking tool to provide that assurance before the flight I would be foolish to not consider it. Our concern is that if an online tool has an agreement with us and is promoting operators as Wyvern compliant they need to ensure that indeed they are current and compliant and that a PASS report has been run prior to each flight.

That is the only way that they can confirm that that flight has met the benchmark in the Wingman system. It is a report card that tells you that the operator is current in the Wingman program, has been audited within 24 months, and is providing verifiable data. We look at current operation specifications, air operator certificates, and insurance certificates. And then we look at the aircraft itself, the age of it, the maintenance status.

And we look at the pilots. How much has a pilot flown in the last 90 days, and was it on that particular type of aircraft? How much he has flown in the past year? Has this pilot had a violation in his background? Does he have accident incidents on his record?

The PASS Report gives you an assurance when you step onto an aircraft that you know all that is reasonably possible to know about its condition and that it is being operated in a legal and responsible manner.

What state generally do you think the charter market is in today? Is the increased competition and price-sensitivity a safety concern?
Demand has improved, but so has supply. It is a very competitive environment. The big concern for us is that when a charter organization is looking to become more and more efficient, some [safety] areas that really matter to us could be compromised, particularly pilot training, maintenance, internal oversight, those types of things.

You see that happening?
I believe there are those pressures and I do believe corners are cut quite often. We see it in the audit process. We have even had occasion—and it doesn’t exist now to my knowledge—where we have had to remove an operator from the Wingman program even after a successful audit within the preceding 24 months because there was evidence of some of those corners being cut.

In many cases, the end-user engages more than one broker to bid a trip and so you get a lot of bidding activity and price ends up being the determining factor of the flight. If it is a Wingman operator, even if it goes through that [competitive bidding] process, the end-user has every reason to believe that those safety objectives have been met.

We would like to grow our vendor pool, but we have high expectations and a lot of people will look to other [safety audit] processes that are easier to obtain, other certifications. Ours is the most difficult. We know that, we have been told that, and that becomes the challenge on a business level to grow the product.


NAME: Art Dawley

BORN: Feb. 11, 1958, Cincinnati

POSITION: CEO, Wyvern Consulting (2013–)

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Owner/president, Paradise Air (Costa Rica air charter provider), 2004–2013; president/owner, Helicorp (Costa Rica aircraft repair station), 2005–2012; senior captain, Dreamworks Aviation (1998–2004); director of flight operations, Peterson Aviation, 1988–1998

EDUCATION: B.S., Business Administration and Finance, California State University, Chico, 1981

PERSONAL: Lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Hobbies include golf, reading, and fishing.