Shaun Williams, Senior Aviation Accident Investigator, and Amy Terrone, Safety Advocate
Ever paid for a helicopter tour over a scenic spot, like the islands of Hawaii or the Grand Canyon? Ever needed an emergency medical flight to a hospital or known someone who has? Ever joined the company CEO on a chartered flight to visit a client, or pitched in with friends to charter an airplane as part of a hunting trip or wedding party?
Part 135 certificated flights—more specifically, commuter and on-demand operations—include a variety of aircraft types and segments, many subject to different requirements. Although Part 135 operations are generally very safe, what you may not know is that these operations aren’t required to have all the same safety systems as commercial airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t mandate all air medical service, air taxi, or on-demand flights to have safety management systems (SMSs), flight data recorders and systems, and some other key safety critical training practices required of passenger-carrying commercial operations (or “Part 121”).
Unfortunately, our recent accident investigations have highlighted this safety gap. We have investigated too many Part 135 accidents since 2000, resulting in dozens of fatalities, that may have been prevented if operators had implemented important safety processes, whether as a result of FAA regulations or their own initiative. Because of our concerns, the NTSB added “Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations” to our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements for 2019–2020.
The number of commercial flights this year has decreased dramatically due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, and there are indications that customers are turning to the Part 135 segment for some of their flying needs. This only increases our concern for the safety of these operations. According to a recent New York Times article, for example, many more travelers are considering Part 135 operations for leisure and business travel due to the limited availability of commercial flights as well as the desire to avoid crowded airports and airplanes.
So, what specific regulations are we asking the FAA to implement that are already required of commercial airliners but not of Part 135 operators? We want the FAA to:
- require SMSs—a formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing and tracking safety that also helps instill a strong safety culture in operations, and
- require flight data monitoring programs (FDMs)—that is, use technology that records airplane flight data, then make adjustments based on operational data to improve safety going forward.
Although most executive-style Part 135 jets and turboprop aircraft chartered for business purposes are quite safe and even sometimes operate above and beyond what commercial airlines implement, we have seen a few cases in this segment in recent years that raise concern and prompted the bulk of our recommendations in this area. For example, in November 2015, we investigated an accident involving a chartered business jet, Execuflight flight 1526, that crashed into an apartment building on approach to the Akron Fulton International airport in Akron, Ohio. The flight was carrying seven employees of a Florida-based company, all of whom, as well as the captain and first officer, died. Fortunately, no one on the ground was injured. As an on‑demand flight, Execuflight flight 1526 was operating under Part 135 regulations. Our investigation revealed that the operator did not have a SMS or FDM program, either voluntarily or by regulation, that may have prevented the accident. As a result of this crash, we recommended that the FAA require that Part 135 operators like Execuflight have SMS and FDM programs, just as commercial airlines have had for years.
Even if the FAA doesn’t require these programs, Part 135 operators should voluntarily adopt them, scalable to their operations, to ensure the highest level of safety for their aircraft and passengers. But, without regulatory requirements, some operators may not implement these safety policies to ensure that their flights are as safe as possible.
It’s important to remember that aviation in the United States is the safest form of transportation. As a customer, you can play a role in keeping it the safest and in improving the safety of on-demand operations. Before you book a flight, do a bit of research and ask a few questions. The following are a few examples of questions you might ask air charter operators directly or the broker if that’s who made your flight arrangements:
- Does the operator hold its own FAA Air Carrier Certificate? Request copies.
- Does the operator have a history of any accidents or recordable incidents?
- Does the operator have an SMS program?
- Does the operator use flight data recorders and FDM programs?
- Does the operator belong to any safety organizations? Do these organizations audit or provide some sort of safety review for their members, which could possibly give an insight into their safety program?
You can visit the websites of organizations such as the Air Charter Safety Foundation and its sister organization, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) for information on these types of operations. The NATA also fulfills the important role of educating the flying public about illegal charters, an increasing safety concern for the industry and for the NTSB. The FAA also has a helpful website to identify safe air charter operations and how consumers can identify safe and unsafe operators. Illegal or unlicensed air charter operations—those who avoid FAA regulations and compromise safety for a buck or to meet a customer’s unrealistic demands—pose a serious safety hazard. You should look for charter operators who at least comply with current regulations—if not those that do more, such as have an SMS program in place—and reward them with your business.
By doing a little homework in advance, you can make an informed—and important—decision about boarding a Part 135 flight. You might also be making these flights safer for other passengers by making operators aware that their customers are watching and demanding safer operations.