Ladd Sanger, an aviation attorney who is managing partner of the Dallas office of law firm Slack & Davis. He also is an FAA-licensed commercial pilot. SlackDavis.com
Bottom Line: Always ask this key question to avoid risky charter flights
The impressive safety record of commercial airlines has made travelers feel much more secure about flying. But that reputation doesn’t always carry over to all kinds of flights. It pays to be cautious about boarding charter flights—there’s a broad spectrum of aircraft and operators out there, and in many parts of the world, government oversight is minimal.
Accident rates are especially high on charter flights from companies based in South America, Central America, Africa and Indonesia. Last New Year’s Eve, a charter plane crashed in Costa Rica, killing 10 American tourists and two pilots. The airline, Nature Air, was later grounded by authorities who said staffing was too low to ensure safety.
One way to reduce your risk on charter flights: Fly only on twin-engine planes that have two pilots. Twin-engine, multi-pilot planes usually can land safely even when a problem occurs with one engine or pilot. (The plane in the Costa Rica crash had only one engine.) When possible, opt for a twin-engine jet over a twin-engine prop plane. In many parts of the world, including the US, charter-jet pilots are subjected to more rigorous training requirements than prop-plane pilots.
Even in the US, charter air travel is significantly less safe than regularly scheduled commercial flights. Example: In late 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that a “litany of failures” by an air-charter company were to blame for a 2015 crash that killed nine people in Akron, Ohio.
To assess whether a US-based charter company is following safe protocols…
Ask, “Are you the operator of the aircraft? Can I see your ‘Part 135’ certificate?” Some companies that present themselves as air-charter services actually are brokers that hire charter services as needed, which makes it tricky for travelers to know who they are trusting with their lives. A legitimate air-charter operator should have an FAA-issued Part 135 certificate, indicating that it follows strict FAA safety and training rules governing charter and air-taxi operations.
Ask to see the operator’s facilities. A legitimate air-charter company based out of a local airport should have its own facilities at that airport where it can meet passengers and conduct its business.
Ask to see a copy of the company’s insurance declaration. A charter operator flying jets should have at least $10 million in liability coverage in case of bodily injury or property damage. The policy should be for commercial operations and not limited to “business and pleasure.” A multimillion-dollar policy may be indicative of good practices as required by the insurance company. A smaller amount of insurance—perhaps as little as a few million dollars—is reasonable if the company flies only prop planes.
Ask, “What safety certifications do you have?” Aviation Research Group/US (ARG/US for short, ARGUS.aero) and Wyvern (WyvernLtd.com) are among the respected organizations that offer safety auditing of air-charter companies. Having a certification from one or both signals that a charter operator goes above and beyond basic safety requirements. Helpful: You can search for ARG/US-rated charter companies at AirCharterGuide.com/ArgusRated.