More than 12 percent of operators failed a safety check

Your first charter flight

A growing number of travelers are turning to chartered aircraft as reports of airline delays, canceled flights and deteriorating service become routine. Combined with the advent of per-seat purchase options and block-membership programs, aircraft charter has emerged as an cost-effective alternative to other means of travel for many people. But how can a new charter customer find a reputable company among the thousands in operation? What can a customer do to ensure the safest and smoothest flight possible?

The first step in assuring a successful charter experience is to make a list of your needs, according to Harlan Sparrow, manager of the FAA's Commuter, On Demand and Training Center Branch. Once you have written down as many details as possible-such as departure and arrival locations, number of passengers and the amount of baggage you will have-call several charter operators to ask for price quotes. "The operators will typically quote on a mileage basis," Sparrow said.

But be forewarned: many operators have hidden fees that aren't included in the quote, advised Toby Batchelder, aircraft management sales manager for Elliott Aviation. "Fuel surcharges can add between $100 and $400 an hour to the cost," he said. "Ask them to send you a quote that lets you see what all the charges are."

After getting quotes, the next-and arguably most important-step is to research the companies you're considering, according to Lindsey McFarren, director of the Air Charter Safety Foundation and former manager of regulatory affairs at the National Air Transportation Association. "You really have to do your homework to find the safest operators," she said. She recommended asking representatives of an operator how much charter experience the company has; for example, the operator might have 20 years of aviation experience but only one year of charter.

Well-established charter companies are the ones most likely to provide outstanding service and safety standards, said Thomas Fitzsimmons, COO of PrivatAir, a charter management company that has been in operation for more than 30 years. "Those are the folks that are going to have the experience. They'll also have the resources, so a customer can be assured they are doing things right."

Check Audit Ratings
Fitzsimmons added that a new customer should ask whether the operator has a certification or rating from auditing companies such as ARG/US and Wyvern. "A combination of a good industry reputation and the third-party certifications should give someone comfort that they have a safe operator," he said.

McFarren cautioned, however, that you should always verify ratings with the auditing companies. "We have run into operators who have one of the logos from third-party auditors on their Web site, or claim to have been audited, but actually they haven't been," she said.

The Pilot & Aircraft Safety Survey Program offered by CharterX and Wyvern Consulting lets you verify "crucial information about the operator, aircraft and crew for a given trip," according to Jim Betlyon, president and CEO of these two companies.

ARG/US offers a similar program, TripCHEQ, which provides in-depth safety reports on operators. ARG/US rates charter operators on a five-level scale: Platinum, Gold+, Gold, Silver and DNQ (did not qualify). "It takes about two minutes to run the program and you'd be shocked at what we've found," said Kathy Tyler, director of sales and marketing for the Cincinnati-based company. "Between April 2006 and March 2007, we ran 42,336 TripCHEQs and 12.3 percent of operators failed. When it comes to the safety of flight, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure."

Like CharterX/Wyvern and ARG/US, the Air Charter Safety Foundation plans to provide a place on its Web site that will allow customers to verify whether an operator meets its standards.

Ask Questions
Besides tapping such resources, you should try to gauge the operator's attitude toward safety and question whether it has safety and training programs in place. Ask, too, whether the operator has ever been the subject of an FAA enforcement action. "Anything less than a straight 'no' might prompt the customer to contact the local FAA Flight Standards District Office [FSDO] or ask the operator for their [charter] certificate number and managing FSDO," McFarren said.

The FSDO inspects all aspects of a charter company's operations, Sparrow explained. In addition to making sure an operator complies with FAA regulations, the FSDO examines maintenance records, operations manuals, pilot and flight logs and other documents. "We do regular scheduled inspections with every charter operator every year," he said. "However, we also do spot inspections with no notice."

Batchelder recommended asking an operator how much insurance liability it carries. "Choose an operator that has a minimum of $50 million in liability insurance," he said. He added that if you use the same charter company on a regular basis, you can ask it to name you as "additionally insured" on its policy.

In addition, Sparrow suggested asking operators for references. "Talking to a satisfied customer is one of the best ways to determine whether you're going to be happy with the flight," he said.

"I think word of mouth is quite important," added Sentient Flight Group CEO Steve Hankin. "A tremendous amount of our growth comes from referrals from current clients."

Asking about a company's operational capabilities can also help alleviate your concerns. Hankin said one of the most important characteristics of a good operator is the ability to respond to unforeseen events, such as mechanical problems or complex itineraries. "What happens if something goes wrong?" he asked. "How does the process work in booking a flight? If we need to make a change, what's the operating capability?"

Fitzsimmons added that these are some of the questions you might want to ask an operator, especially if the trip involves overseas travel: "Do you have 24/7 dispatch service? If it's an international trip, do you have worldwide operations? Do you have dispatch coverage in different parts of the world? If you have an issue during your trip, can the pilots call a dispatch center to get service?"

Batchelder also suggested asking whether dedicated pilots are assigned to a specific aircraft. "Many operators, like Elliott Aviation, dedicate two pilots to a specific aircraft," he explained. "They fly as a team each and every flight."

In addition to scrutinizing information provided by auditing companies and the FAA, you should pay attention to human factors and your own instincts, said Fred Gevalt, founder and former CEO of The Air Charter Guide. "The human factors are important," he said. "A buyer of charter can kind of keep an eye out for attitude, punctuality and body language. Do the pilots look bored? Do they look attentive? How do they interact with the crew? How did they greet you? It's an attitude check."

Finally, it's also important to share your fears and concerns with the operator and the pilots, Sparrow said. "It's not unusual, especially for first-time charter customers, to have some apprehensions," he said. "I would share those with the operator. If you have a fear of flying, let them know. If you get motion sickness, let them know. Operators, I think you will find, will take the time to explain things and answer your questions."

You Can Contribute To Safety

The best thing you can do to assure a safe charter flight is to pick a safe operator. But if you have the right attitude, you can also directly contribute to safety.
"Passengers need to be reminded that they are a part of the safety equation, much more so than in the airlines," said Fred Gevalt, founder and former CEO of The Air Charter Guide. "It's a more intimate interaction between the crew and the passengers on a corporate jet."

Gevalt added that customers must remember that even though the charter industry is service oriented, the pilots have control of the aircraft. "The best thing you can do as a passenger as you board is to turn to the pilots and say, 'You know, we're hoping to get to this meeting, but there's always tomorrow, so don't sweat it,'" Gevalt said.

Listening to the briefing before a flight and giving the pilots your attention is also important, said Lindsey McFarren, director of the Air Charter Safety Foundation. "The briefings on smaller aircraft are more critical because each airplane is different," she noted. "It's crucial for passengers to listen to crew briefings prior to departure, and anything the crew briefs during the flight would be critical as well."

For those who want to be even more prepared, there are companies that offer accident-survival-skills training. Jeff Hare, president of Safety & Survival Systems in Jamaica, N.Y., provides aviation survival courses tailored for business jet travelers. His company presents two- to three-hour classes that include training aboard aircraft and that address topics such as emergency procedures and smoke evacuation. Some companies have made the classes a requirement for their top executives, Hare said.

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