The job is also complicated by the fact that the FAA has no hammer to use on illegal operators. “What do you take away from them, anyway?” Rosser asks. “You can't seize the airplane. If someone is willing to operate an aircraft outside the regulations and the FAA revokes their pilot certificate, they've already demonstrated they are operating outside the regs, so what's stopping them from just going right out and doing it again after the FAA inspector leaves? [Operating an aircraft without the proper pilot certificate — or no certificate at all — is a civil, not a criminal, offense punished by a relatively small fine.] So it's really hard to stop someone who's determined to break the law. There is really no deterrent.”

In defense of the understaffed FSDOs and their POIs toiling in the field, Russ Lawton, safety director at the Air Charter Safety Foundation, added that “. . . if you consider the lack of resources at the FAA today, basically most inspectors barely have time to track activities they have at their office, let alone police charter violators. Plus they have other entities like flight schools they're responsible for.”

Rosser continued: “You can't do indirectly what you're prohibited from doing directly. What is the real intent of the flight, what are they really selling here, what is the customer's expectation of what they're doing? The entire FAA system is set up on people voluntarily doing what is required of them. But if you are someone who is intentionally breaking the law because it's cheaper to do it that way, there is no mechanism at the FAA that is set up to go after a business that is operating an aircraft illegally — there is no special office, there are no inspectors specially trained to police this.”

The lack of FAA resources was the impetus for establishment of the NATA hotline, Lawton said. The idea for a reporting service originated in the aftermath of the TEB Challenger accident and was initially financed through an FAA grant. It went live in 2008, and callers can remain anonymous if they choose. (See sidebar.) While the FAA funding has expired, NATA has committed to continue staffing the hotline.

Whether the FAA can initiate investigations of suspected illegal charter providers depends on the quality of the information provided by callers. “The person who staffs the line tries to get a callback number for follow-ups,” Lawton said, “but if someone gives a vague report, it's pretty hard to follow up on that.” If there is good detail, such as names and dates, the caller will be asked if he or she has any objections to NATA forwarding the information to FAA Flight Standards Service (most don't). “The feedback we've gotten from the FAA is that they do act on the data. It is difficult to know definitely, though, until an investigation takes place, and that can take a lot of time, years even. What we really need is feedback from the [violator's] customers, and that is very hard to capture. And it can be factually difficult to prove.”

Rosser added that, “If I place a bogus ad in the newspaper saying I'm a charter operator, that is a violation of DOT regs. They would have the authority to go after me for unfair and deceptive practices. And they have gone after brokers advertising ‘our fleets.' But that is not a violation of FAA rules, and from [the FAA's] standpoint, they cannot be involved until there is movement of an aircraft, and they won't know that until someone reports it because there is no FAA protocol to routinely spot-check all Part 91 ops [aside from fractional ownership].”