Mike Stones

Illegal charter: Combatting the ‘careless, clueless and criminal’

There’s a rising tide of Illegal charter that requires international co-operation to combat “the careless, the clueless and the criminal”. The words belong to Glenn Hogben, chief executive of The Air Charter Association. He used the phrase, long adopted by the Air Charter Safety Alliance, in a forum dedicated to the topic at the Air Charter Expo, which took place at London Biggin Hill Airport early this week.

A few days later, Ryan Waguespack, from the National Air Transport Association (NATA), explained just how serious the problem was – at least in the US. “This year alone we have seen a 40% uptick in illegal charter reports just here Stateside,” the NATA senior vice president of Aircraft Management, Air Charter Services & MROs, told Corporate Jet Investor Town Hall delegates.

“People want to fly private,” he said. “It’s no longer a luxury. It is in scope and it is essential. Companies and families want to mitigate the risk of Covid-19.” But those who want to charter aircraft find themselves trapped in an unprecedented pincer movement between burgeoning demand from new entrants to the sector and the massive reduction in commercial airline schedules – particularly serving regional airports. The result, too often, can be illegal charter flights that endanger safety and rob legitimate operators of much needed revenue.

‘Tremendous uptick in illegal charter’

Waguespack is blunt: “If they can’t get it through a jet card or are challenged to find it from a broker, then they are going to find it somewhere. So, that is why we are seeing a tremendous uptick in illegal charter.”

This is where “the careless, the clueless and the criminal come in”. All three groups require scrutiny, but it is the last – the criminal – that is the most damaging, according to Hogben, at The Air Charter Association. “I am glad to say this is the smallest part of the category,” he said. “It’s a relatively small number of people who are deliberately operating illegal charters for commercial benefit. This is the biggest challenge and the area where we want to focus the most attention.”

They are not the only ones. The campaign to tackle illegal charter has been gathering momentum. “The FAA is doing a lot of cracking down at the moment,” said Nata’s Waguespack. “They have built their processes internally over the past three years and continue to take this very seriously because they see it as a safety risk. The NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] is now involved heavily and other government agencies to collaborate and make sure they can crack down as much as possible.”

‘The FAA is doing a lot of cracking down’

It’s not just criminals who are responsible for the curse of illegal charter. Less culpable, but still posing a risk to passenger safety, are the careless and the clueless. While the careless did not set out to break the law, they sometimes did so through lack of attention to detail. Hogben, at the Air Charter Association, said: “They are not intentionally doing it but they suddenly tip over the boundary from where they should be operating and end up doing an illegal operation.”

The clueless are an equally concerning. They are often the private pilots who agree to a friend’s offer to pay for a flight without realising this transfers the flight into an illegal commercial operation.

“Education will help with the careless and the clueless, but the criminal do it intentionally because they are benefiting from it,” said Hogben. He highlighted the work of The Air Charter Safety Alliance set up 18 months ago to harness the help of its 18 member organisations to fight illegal charter worldwide.

When it comes to booking that next charter flight, it pays to guard against “the careless, the clueless and the criminal” and to stay firmly on the right side of the law.

Safe and legal to fly? Compliance is assured with legal charter but not illegal flights or grey charter.

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