Illegal aircraft charter has been overhyped
Brian Johnson, the man who helped launch the Isle of Man’s fast-growing aircraft registry sheds some light on illegal air charter.
First can I start by objecting to the phrase ‘grey charters.’ Flights are either legal, or illegal; we should not confuse the matter by suggesting there may be something in between.
I have worked for 20 years as an aviation regulator, with the UK CAA, in many overseas territories, and as director of civil aviation for the Isle of Man. In each of the jurisdictions we received allegations of illegal operations and we investigated every one of them. In most areas there are a small number of suspected illegal operators and they should be constantly targeted and if proved, hopefully prosecuted out of our industry.
In no jurisdiction have I experienced the number of complaints reach the percentage of double figures recently quoted in relation to the size of the industry. One question we need to address is how are the figures quoted in the media calculated? We must not publicise inaccurate or exaggerated figures which will destroy the credibility of our concerns. Regulators should help the industry and its passengers, by regularly publishing statistics showing how many illegal flights they have investigated and how many were prosecuted.
The UK CAA has a dedicated enforcement branch with an ex-police officer inspecting staff. Even with all their years of experience and investigating skills it is difficult for them to successfully prosecute when passengers who have paid for an illegal flight, will not provide evidence to help prosecute the operator. Unless there is evidence, it is almost impossible to devote expensive resources and costs to investigate allegations that cannot be proved.
Following are some examples of investigations which identify a few of the issues:
While I was director of civil aviation at the Isle of Man, one report came from a handling agent (often a very good source of information), who thought passengers were travelling illegally on an aircraft. We investigated and the owner admitted to carrying a passenger who had paid part of the cost. The owner did not understand the legal situation and we informed him that his aircraft would be de-registered if it happened again. The investigation failed to meet the requirements for prosecution but to my knowledge no further illegal flights were made.
In another case, we received a report from an Aircraft Operator’s Certificate (AOC) holder claiming that a corporate aircraft was carrying many different passengers, which they claimed were therefore illegal charters. We investigated and were given the names and company positions of all the passengers. They informed us that whilst not all their employees flew on the aircraft, they did employ 60,000 people! So there would always be many different passengers travelling and all of them were employees.
One AOC holder told us he had lost a charter to another AOC holder who he claimed had used an Isle of Man registered private aircraft for the charter from London to New York. We checked the New York airport records and the aircraft tech logs, and although a time consuming and expensive investigation, we proved the owner was actually with his aircraft in Moscow at the time of the alleged charter.
In one overseas territory we caught an operator loading his aircraft with Government cargo; apparently the government did not know we had removed his Charter Permit (AOC) for illegal operations six months previously!
In the UK, we targeted horse racing jockeys who we believed had been paying illegal operators in cash to fly them to races in light aircraft. When our inspector explained how dangerous it was to fly with unlicensed and uninsured operators, a top jockey replied: “Have you any idea how dangerous it is hanging onto a horse doing 40 mph and jumping over five foot fences?” His perspective on safety was somewhat different to ours. There was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Personally, I do not believe most international companies would allow an illegal flight to take place on their corporate aircraft and most professional pilots would not risk their career, or prosecution, by conducting illegal flights. As much as it may disappoint some accusers, the majority of flights are probably legal, but as in all walks of life there will always be someone who does not follow the law and they must be identified and prosecuted. If you are an AOC holder, with all its accompanying costs, and have aircraft parked due to the current economic climate, seeing corporate aircraft still busy flying must be frustrating, but it does not mean they are flying illegally and taking your customers.
However, if anyone has evidence or reasonable suspicion, of an illegal flight, do not hesitate; report it to your regulator and request to be kept informed of the progress of their investigations. As a regulator I always appreciated receiving industry concerns and always responded with our findings. We need to solve the problem of illegal flights and we all need to solve it together.