A situation similar to that formerly confronting the airlines now exists in the business jet charter segment - FAR Part 135 air charter operations in the United States and equivalent activity in other countries - where varying auditing and operational standards and a phalanx of third-party auditors have become focused on the industry. A spate of charter aircraft accidents - the result of icing, CFIT, maintenance lapses, improper loading, inexperienced and ill-trained flight crews, among other things - have helped spur users to vet charter operators' safety records, policies, procedures and quality of service. Since almost all Part 135 operators are smaller than the typical airline, accommodating multiple safety audits poses real economic and time burdens. In some cases, popular operators have had to deal with eight to 10 audits a year.

Complicating this is the presence of multiple auditing standards among auditing companies and consultancies as well as the existence of the International Business Aviation Council's (IBAC) International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations, or IS-BAO, a safety- and quality-assurance standards set based on ISO (International Standards Organization) principles. (Until this year, the Flight Safety Foundation also maintained its own operational standards program for business aviation dubbed Q-Star; however, the initiative was shut down in response to the growing popularity of IS-BAO.)

Now, some controversy is resulting from the Air Charter Safety Foundation's (ACSF) introduction in April 2009 of a new performance and auditing benchmark oriented specifically toward charter operators with the rather prosaic title of Industry Audit Standard.

The controversy centers on the perceived need for yet another operational safety and auditing standard when one - IS-BAO - already exists for Part 91, 91K (fractional ownership) and 135 operators. On top of the avalanche of third-party audits, many operators are questioning why yet another standard to measure themselves against is necessary. In response, ACSF's safety management director, Russ Lawton, cited an unnamed Part 135 operator that was undergoing eight audits a year - “almost one a month” - and claimed the charter industry “was asking for something like what the airlines are doing through IOSA only for the [Part] 135 world.

To support the current level of multiple annual audits, Lawton, who also holds the safety director post at the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), the organization that spawned the ACSF, pointed out “there has to be an allocation of company resources to respond to the audit, [and] you have to dedicate staff time to the audit preparation and follow-up.

“And let's face it,” he continued, “there are varying qualities of audits and auditors - some will visit for an afternoon, others for two weeks. So from the operator point of view, there was a need for one type of audit. You do it every two years, and it goes into a registry.”

Countering any suggestion that NATA wanted the ACSF to somehow dominate the standards and auditing business, Lawton noted that the latter is an independent, charitable foundation (for which 501C3 status as a nonprofit entity has been filed with the IRS) whose purpose “is to promote industry best practices, gain acceptance of SMSes throughout the commercial world, gather accurate industry data and provide operators with tools to enhance their safety practices” and that the audit standard “is a tool for accomplishing that.” It also distributes free Aviation Safety Information System (AvSIS) software, purchased in 2008 from Reed Business Information in the U.K.

Dennis Keith, president and CEO of Dallas-based charter/management company Jet Solutions and an NATA board member, added that, “You have to remember that there were some really bad Part 135 accidents earlier in the decade, and we saw the need for some proactive measures to get this under control.”