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The challenges of illegal charters

Aerospace
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By Dave Edwards and John Taylor | June 11, 2020

Dave Edwards, Air Charter Association and John Taylor, Willis Towers Watson, consider the circumstances surrounding the Emiliano Sala case with reference to the prevailing illegal charter consequences.

On the 21 January 2019, two lives were lost in what appears to have been an entirely avoidable illegal charter flight. The footballer, Emiliano Sala, and David Ibbotson lost their lives when the light aircraft they were travelling in crashed into the English Channel, just north of Guernsey.

Neither the pilot nor the aircraft were licensed for commercial air transport and yet it was carrying a passenger on a commercial basis

The UK Air Accident Investigation Branch, in their report in March 2020 made it clear that neither the pilot nor the aircraft were licensed for commercial air transport and yet it was carrying a passenger on a commercial basis. What is so tragic about reading the accident report is that there were a series of moments throughout the flight where the depth and breadth of a commercial charter operation would have simply said “stop” and hopefully prevented the loss of two lives.

The Air Charter Association (the Association), representing over 250 professional organisations in the air charter industry, isn’t naïve enough to believe that illegal air charter can be entirely stopped, it’s a crime and sadly there are always people who are happy to break the law to make money illicitly. However, what the Association is actively working towards is greater awareness by the travelling public of the safety differences between commercial air transport and non-commercial flying so that they can make an informed choice.

The challenge the regulators face when it comes to prosecutions is in obtaining proof

The challenge the regulators face when it comes to prosecutions is in obtaining proof, reports are invariably made after flights have taken place and it is then very difficult to gather sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute, indeed regulator track records would suggest it is almost impossible to achieve. Therefore, alongside the regulators, the Air Charter Association is taking a stronger approach on education, ensuring that users, pilots and aircraft owners really understand the personal risks they are taking when they support the illegal charter industry.

Day leasing is a growing phenomenon where an individual leases an aircraft for a specific flight

The Air Charter Association, together with a number of industry bodies, is calling for stronger enforcement of the existing laws, higher penalties for individuals who break them knowingly and more clarity for users of ‘day leasing’ aircraft. Day leasing is a growing phenomenon where an individual leases an aircraft for a specific flight, hiring a pilot separately and is generally performed on non-commercial aircraft. For individuals who understand the complexities of operating an aircraft this is perhaps understandable, however there is growing concern that an increasing number of users have no concept of what a lease brings with it, in that they are now to all intents and purposes the owner of that aircraft. From the Air Charter Association’s work with insurers it appears that underwriters are rarely being informed of day leases taking place, something which would almost certainly invalidate an insurance policy, is also likely to invalidate personal insurance policies which include light aircraft flying as an enhanced risk and they have to be prepared to face the consequences of anything that goes wrong – including corporate manslaughter and personal legal claims in the very worst of cases.

On the education front, the Air Charter Association is highlighting the problems the industry sees as often and as widely as they can - areas such as insurance and the broker market are key to this message, ensuring that there is no ambiguity given to aircraft owners about how unlikely it would be for a claim to be paid out if it were an illegal flight.

The Association is challenging the regulators around the world to come up with a very simple and easy system for passengers getting on an aircraft to check that it is a commercial licensed one and that they are not getting onto an illegal flight. This is actually very simple to do, even as simple as a small QR code to scan as a passenger get onboard which gives them data on the aircraft and the Air Operators Certificate or Air Carriers Certificate that the aircraft operates under, at least this would help those passengers who are unwittingly flying on illegal charters. One can then look at other ways to target those who simply choose to break the law.

Aviation is an amazing tool, never more so than we’ve seen in the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Charter Association encourages the world to understand the many great benefits it brings to individuals and companies and the last thing they want is to prevent it from happening, they just want to make sure that everyone involved in it is following the rules, obeying the law, minimising the risk to the travelling public and generating revenue to ensure the industry continues to exist for everyone.

Sources:
  1. https://www.theaircharterassociation.aero
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/aaib-report-piper-pa-46-310p-malibu-n264db-21st-january-2019
Authors

Managing Director, General and Corporate Aviation

CEO, Air Charter Association

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