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Charter Aircraft Services: Trust but Verify

Posted on: September 29th, 2012 by Pete Agur

Charter Aircraft Services:  Trust but Verify

 

By Peter v. Agur, Jr., Managing Director & Founder

The VanAllen Group, Inc

 

 

It was not a great day to fly.  But renowned motivational speaker Dr. Mike Mescon had a date with an audience.  Mescon is in the habit of delivering… even when it takes a charter plane punching through worrisome weather to get there.

 

But this morning’s flight was different.  Mescon greeted his normally friendly pilot … and got no response.  Maybe he just had his game face on for the difficult flight ahead.  Mescon climbed aboard, laid his briefcase in the seat across the aisle and began to review his notes.  Meanwhile, the pilot, flying solo, sullenly taxied the aircraft for departure.

 

As they climbed out into the gray gloom Mescon reflected on the pilot’s demeanor.  He leaned forward and asked, “Bill, how are you doing?”  The response was chilling, “Dr. Mescon, have you ever wanted to kill yourself?”  Mescon set his papers down, slipped into the co-pilot’s seat and gave the most important motivational speech of his career.

 

Incidents like this contribute to the air charter industry’s checkered reputation.  But a well managed charter trip can provide great safety, service and efficiency.  Yet, if you, the customer, aren’t a smart buyer you can, like Dr. Mescon, get a lot more, or less, than you expected.

The most critical charter issue to address is safety.  Then you can focus on services and their costs.  According to the FAA’s records, the overall accident rate for air taxi operations is ten times that of the major airlines.  There are 1.90 charter aircraft accidents per 100,000 flight hours versus 0.19 accidents per 100,000 hours for the scheduled airlines.  That’s the difference between one charter accident per 900 trips around the earth versus one for each 9,000 times on an airliner.

The following four easy steps can change those charter flight safety odds dramatically in your favor.  At the same time you will get better service for the fee you expect.  The secret?  Trust but verify.

 

Step One –Get the right tools for the job

If the value of being at one or more destinations in a day or two far exceeds the cost of getting there, charter flights can do the trick.  Or, if you are traveling as a group charter flights may be both time and cost efficient.

 

Determine the type of aircraft and crew that fit your needs.  To do this you’ll need to know your departure point, destination, number of people in your group and your baggage requirements, particularly if you plan to bring along bulky items, such as gantries or golf bags.

 

Most Fortune 1000 companies have a few basic rules about corporate flying that you should consider using, too.  The underlying intent is to maintain standards close to those of the airlines when you place your people in business or charter aircraft.  You can do this by establishing your company’s “Business and Charter Aircraft Use Policy”.  Included in the policy should be

  • Guidance on the purpose and use of business aircraft and charter services (who uses the services for what purposes and who authorizes them).
  • A co-rider policy that describes who should not fly together to avoid unnecessary risks to the business.
  • A description of the minimum standards for business aircraft service safety to include
    • Use only aircraft with at least two turbine engines.  That includes jets and turboprop aircraft.  Turbine engines are more durable and powerful than piston engines.
    • The cockpit crew must be two highly qualified pilots.  The captain should have no less than 5,000 hours total flight time.  You want a captain with at least 500 hours in the specific type of aircraft, about a year’s worth of experience.  This means the captain will have seen most weather and other operational conditions you could expect to encounter in that airplane.  The co-pilot should have no less than half of the minimum experience requirements of the captain.
  • You want the crew to be trained in full motion simulators twice each year.  This is a best practice for corporate and charter operators of turbine aircraft.  The FAA permits training in the aircraft but that training is not as thorough because of the safety limitations imposed by practicing in-flight emergencies in the air.  If the operator is too cheap to buy simulator time, what other corners are they cutting?

 

To find an air-taxi operator that appears to fit your needs, seek the services of a reputable charter broker, refer to the Air Charter Guide (aircharterguide.com), let your fingers walk through the Yellow Pages, or surf the internet.  Referrals from friends and acquaintances can be helpful, but don’t rely on word-of-mouth alone.  Remember, you want to trust but verify.

 

Step Two – Confirm the Charter Operator’s Safety Standards and Record

Confirm the charter provider holds a valid FAA Air Carrier Operating Certificate, which is required of all FAA Certificated Air Carriers (the official term for an air-taxi operator).  If they can’t or won’t send copies of these documents to you, call another operator.  The Certificate includes the holder’s name and identification number.  You’ll need these when you check with the FAA about the operator.

 

There are a few basic questions you should ask the operator about their safety and service practices:

  • Determine how many full- and part-time pilots and mechanics are currently on staff.  More full-time staff is better.  And like any business, staff stability and tenure is important.
  • How old is the aircraft?  Less than 15 years old is usually fine, but newer is better.
  • Does the aircraft you’ll use have a Collision Avoidance System and a Ground Proximity Warning System?  The latest versions of these devices (TCAS II and the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System) are even better at helping to prevent unplanned contact with other aircraft or the ground.
  • Who performs their maintenance?  Factory service centers have good reputations, but so do many third-party providers.  It is not a best practice to do all the maintenance in-house.  Fresh eyes and extensive technical expertise are good things when it comes to keeping aircraft in great shape.
  • Have they been audited within the last year?  Get the name and contact numbers for the auditor.  With the operator’s authorization, call the auditing company and ask for a copy of their report.
  • What are the names and contact numbers for the FAA Principal Operations Inspector (POI) and FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) that oversee the operator?  Ask the POI about the operator’s certificate status, its incident and accident record and if any FAA actions are pending or have been taken within the past five years.  If so, what are the details?  Some violations may be minor paperwork problems while others are more serious.  Ask about the reputation of the operator’s maintenance provider.
  • Ask the operator for business and customer references.  Call a few for their opinions and experiences.
  • What is the minimum liability insurance you expect of the operator?  Most companies require a $50 – $200 million single occurrence limit.  If the operator doesn’t have this level of coverage their insurance company may know something you don’t.  Or, they may be too financially strapped to afford customary insurance amounts.

 

When you’ve verified the answers to all these questions you’ve probably found an operator that you can trust to keep you safe.  Now you’re ready to go on to the service and cost issues.

 

Step Three – Make certain you are getting the service you intend

When you call to book your flight you can expect to answer a number of important questions:

  • How many passengers are going on each leg and what are their needs (meals, luggage, etc.)? This confirms the size of the aircraft, its range and load capacity, catering requirements, etc.  Discuss your special needs with the operator.  Do you have any special dietary concerns?  Will you be bringing children or pets with you?  Remember that an airplane is a lot like a car.  Even though you have seatbelts for five people, you don’t want to go very far with all the seats filled.  Ask for an airplane that has at least one or two more seats than you have people and you’ll find the trip to be much more comfortable.  You are paying for personalized service, so let them know upfront what you want.
  • Where are you coming from and going to?  Tell the operator where you want to go, including the street address.  Let them select the most suitable airport.  With more than 5,000 general aviation airports to choose from, the charter operator may be able to get closer than you expect.  Besides, it’s often much more convenient to avoid airline hub airports.  Confirm the town and state of your destination.  For instance, whichAlbany…GeorgiaorNew York?
  • Where should you meet the aircraft and crew?  Some airports have both airline and general aviation terminals. Where in the terminal should you go?  If you are meeting them at a fixed-base operator (FBO), which one?  Again, get addresses and maps to avoid confusion and frustration.
  • Get the names and contact numbers for the pilots, the operator and the FBO.  Include after-hours numbers, too.  You will take some of the stress out of last minute changes and challenges if these numbers are handy.
  • What security procedures are in effect?  What should you not bring on board the aircraft or into the terminal or FBO?  If you are going internationally (includingCanada,Bahamas andMexico), what visas, passports and other identification and documents should you all have with you?
  • Get written answers to these details three or more days before the trip.  This will let you clear up any confusion before time becomes critical.

 

The day before each trip leg, you want to confirm that everything remains as planned.  Something could have happened to the aircraft or crew.  Or your needs could have changed—more or fewer passengers, additional baggage, and different destination or departure times.  Again, if you want no surprises, you must trust but verify.

 

Step Four – Define the total cost

Charter fees are different from airline fares.  They are based on flight time, or mileage, plus other expenses.  Ask the operator for a written estimate of the final charges, to include all possible costs (trip flight time, repositioning charges, waiting-time charges, overnight and crew costs, taxes, airport fees, catering, limousines and incidentals).  Be prepared to give them your credit references and make arrangements for payment (direct billing, cash, credit card, etc.).

 

In summary, if you are properly prepared, you can get everything you want, and more, from a charter aircraft trip.  And if you if you don’t want surprises like the one Dr. Mescon got, it is imperative that you trust but verify.


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