How to check the safety of a charter airline

Jan 30, 2018
  • By Christine Negroni
  • The New York Times

Meryl Block Weissman was returning to New York from Costa Rica on New Year’s Eve when she heard that 10 American tourists and two pilots had been killed in the crash of a Nature Air charter flight at the Pacific Coast town of Punta Islita. 

Just days earlier, she, her extended family and others on a group tour were scheduled to fly the same airline.  

But Nature Air made a last-minute change and “instead of three, two-engine planes, the group would be put on four, single-engine Cessna planes,” Block Weissman said. Concerned about the unexpected switch, their tour guide canceled their plans to fly and had them travel by bus and boat instead.  

Block Weissman said that she was “disappointed not to see the rain forest from the air,” but when she learned about the tragedy, she wondered if there was anything she could do to judge the safety of a foreign air charter.  

“We want the people in the back seat to know there is a resource to get information,” said Art Dawley, the chief executive of Wyvern, which assesses air charter services for corporate flight departments, frequent users of private aviation and more recently, ordinary travelers who do not usually take charters like Block Weissman.  

For $49, Wyvern provides a report that includes the charter company’s insurance information, maintenance and pilot reports so travelers can know “the airline has done everything it can to be sure is has managed risk to the industry standard,” Dawley said.  

Arg/us, which also audits the safety practices of participating air charter companies, gives travelers access to similar information through an online query called TripCheq. The fee is $150.  

But many people are booked on charters through cruise lines or tour operators and they may take the safety of the airline for granted, said Brian Alexander, an aviation lawyer.  

“People believe air operators are totally checked out and connected to and insured by the cruise ships or tour people,” he said, but that is not always the case. Alexander said that travelers on charters they have not booked themselves should always ask the cruise line, “What have you done to assure yourself this is a safe and experienced operation?”  

Air travel has never been safer than it was in 2017, with two fatal accidents among commercial airlines worldwide. Still, risk varies by region.  

The Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Commonwealth of Independent States in Eurasia have the highest accident rates; between 2.8 and 5.8 accidents per million flights. That’s three to five times the rate in North Asia and North America, according to statistics compiled by the International Air Transport Association.  

(The authorities in Costa Rica have since grounded Nature Air while two government agencies conduct an investigation. The decision to shutter the domestic and regional airline came after the General Directorate of Civil Aviation said that staffing was so low it could not safely carry out its flight schedule.)  

Here are some ideas for checking out air charter services.  

— Inspect the facility. Aviation requires attention to detail and an aversion to hazards. Consider it a warning if you arrive at the airport and the appearance of the company, the airplane or the flight crew doesn’t seem professional.  

— Check references. Call the company for them. Trip Advisor also has an airline review page.  

— What does the U.S. government think? The Federal Aviation Administration’s online International Aviation Safety Assessment contains a list of countries that meet international aviation safety and oversight standards. The list is comprehensive but includes only countries whose airlines are permitted to fly to the United States.  

— See the paperwork. There are three documents that all charter airlines ought to be able to show you, according to Wyvern’s Dawley: its air operations certificate, its insurance certificate and the pilots’ qualifications — all should be available at the airline office.  

— Network protection. Any domestic or regional carrier, including those that offer charter flights that are associated with an airline alliance such as Oneworld or Star Alliance, will have to pass a safety audit. If it has an intercarrier ticketing arrangement, the major carrier is responsible for auditing their operations, according to John Darbo, a retired safety manager for a U.S. airline who is now a private safety consultant.