Passengers Seen As Key To Combating Illegal Charters

Safe Air Charter
Credit: Bill Carey

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—Knowledgeable passengers are key to combating illegal charter operations, which spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to FAA safety inspectors.

“The passengers are the hardest people to reach because they’re basically looking for the cheapest air transportation,” said Don Riley, operations safety instructor with the FAA’s Special Emphasis Investigations Team (SEIT). “They’re not aviation savvy for the most part and they don’t even know that they’re supposed to ask questions. It makes our job very difficult to find different ways to reach the passengers.”

Speaking June 22 at the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) Air Charter Summit, Riley and Paul D’Allura, FAA SEIT assistant manager, outlined the agency’s efforts to investigate as well as to inform the public about illegal charter flights by aircraft operators that do not hold certificates as Part 135 air carriers. Illegal operators can offer lower prices to passengers while skirting the maintenance, crew training, pilot duty time, insurance costs, federal excise tax and other requirements of charter operators who comply with the law.

The FAA established the SEIT unit, which now consists of 22 aviation safety inspectors, in 2005 with a focus on investigating illegal charter operations. In addition, the agency’s Flight Standards District Offices pursue reports of illegal charter operators in their respective regions. The SEIT, other FAA components and NATA formed the Safe Air Charter Team in 2019 to ramp up public outreach about illegal charters.

“This outfit is very passionate about protecting the [legal] 135s but especially protecting the people in the back of the airplane,” said Riley, who has been with the unit since its start.

SEIT has hosted webinars focused on educating operators, pilots and passengers about illegal charter operations. It has briefed civil aviation authorities in South America, the Caribbean region and the Middle East, with further plans to brief authorities in Africa and Central America. The unit communicates with air charter brokers, insurance underwriters and university aviation departments. It has started working more closely with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

The FAA also now requires aviation safety inspectors to attend a course on illegal charters at its academy in Oklahoma City.

Riley said SEIT investigated 231 cases of illegal charter operations in the two years before the pandemic, equating to 115 per year. During the three years of the pandemic, from 2020-22, it investigated 460 cases, or 153 per year. The rate “did go up as we suspected for a couple of reasons,” he said. “Obviously, the passengers, the public, left the airlines for private travel and some of that fed into illegal travel, unfortunately.” 

The unit has investigated about 100 cases so far this fiscal year, which for the federal government runs from October through September.

The FAA’s record of enforcement appears outsized by the problem. Over the last few years, SEIT has initiated 20 enforcement actions against operators, which have yielded $18 million in civil penalties. However, this does not reflect the number of suspensions, compliance actions and warnings affecting pilots, Riley said.

“I know we all want our pound of flesh when it comes to illegal 135s, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Riley said. “There are many ways these investigations can be closed out short of an actual civil penalty or, for a certificated operator, revoking their certificate. Intuitively we all know, enforcement alone won’t ever take care of it. It’s really about education and outreach to help stop these kinds of operations.”

Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.