Written by: Alex Early, CEO of The Early Air Way
January 8th, 2013
This is easily the biggest plague of the air charter business. If you read my last blog posting about “shady charter companies,” you’ll see that I was planning on writing about Part 134.5 charters as my next blog entry. Between then and now however, a recent Learjet crash only fueled my desire to inform the charter consumer of what this illegal and dangerous practice is all about.
Part 134.5 is an aviation industry slang term for illegal charters. Just because someone owns an aircraft and has pilots, it does not mean that they can sell you a flight on said aircraft. Operating air charter for hire in the United States is a heavily regulated practice, much more so than simply operating an aircraft for personal use.
To better understand this, we must first look at the following:
Part 91 Criteria: Say you go out and purchase an aircraft for your own personal use, most likely you will be flying it under the FAR (Federal Air Regulations) rule of “part 91.” When flying part 91, you as the owner are in control of everything from insurance, to maintenance, to who is sitting in the cockpit; as such, there is less unknown to you. It is strictly illegal to sell charters on planes flying under the rules of part 91.
Part 135 Criteria: To fly part 135 (air charter) flights, someone must obtain a part 135 Air Carrier Certificate. Essentially, a 135 Air Carrier certificate denotes an air charter airline. The hurdles which one must jump to obtain a 135 certificate are enormous; it isn’t easy! For a 135 certificate, the applicant must adhere to a nearly endless list of mandates which include increased maintenance intervals, higher pilot training requirements, higher crew-rest requirements, longer runway requirements, greater fuel reserve requirements, higher insurance requirements, more in-depth safety planning, and so much more. Flying part 91 on the contrary is extremely easy; you just buy a plane and start using it. It is assumed by regulators that the charter consumer is not as informed about how his/her charter aircraft is maintained and flown [when compared to an owner flying his/her personal aircraft], and that the provider has a duty of operating the aircraft to a higher standard to set a high bar of quality because of that purported unknown. Obtaining and adhering to part 135 standards is very expensive, and can make operating a plane significantly more expensive than it would be when operated strictly to part 91 standards.
What happens more often than you’d imagine is the practice of selling charter flights on part 91 airplanes with part 91 crews; or “selling 134.5 flights.” The operators who do this know that they’re breaking the law. The only reason to do this is to sell charter flights with less overhead than if you do it legally and make more money while doing it. In order to obtain the business, illegal 134.5 operators price their flights less than any legitimate 135 operator, which they can do since their overhead is only a fraction of that of legal 135 flying. One would hope that consumers steer clear of this practice, however my experience has been that most don’t! So many consumers are so attracted to the lower cost of charter a jet through illegal means that they don’t care that it’s illegal, or don’t even think to care that it’s illegal. These consumers don’t know what they’re sacrificing in terms of safety and legal risk.
Charter consumers may think that the legitimate companies are greedy for charging noticeably higher prices, but the fact of the matter is that it is always the illegal carriers who are the greedy ones. The profit margins in illegal charters are exponentially higher than those in legal charters because of the lower operating costs and unreported Federal Excise Taxes that legitimate charter companies collect for domestic on-demand 135 flights.
You can get on an illegal part 134.5 flight not only by booking through an illegal operator, but also by booking through an inexperienced and/or unethical broker. What is scary here is that one may end up on a dangerous illegal 134.5 charter without even knowing it. One of the most famous crashes of the past decade involved a Challenger 601 that overran the runway in Teterboro, NJ. The cause of the crash was an unbalanced aircraft due to having excessive fuel in the tanks, which the illegal 134.5 operator did to save money. The flight was booked through one of the largest charter brokerages in the world; the passengers probably had no idea that they were on an illegitimate flight. Unfortunately what they ended up with was a broker that only looked at the price of the flights, and didn’t even verify that the plane and crew they were using were registered to a 135 certificate! Let alone looking into the maintenance standards of the aircraft… Sadly, many brokers out there only know how to look a price as a means of selecting an option, and that is dangerous. These very brokers, whose names I won’t share, all talk about how safe they are on their websites by the way; many of whom wouldn’t even know how to verify that a plane is on a valid charter certificate.
Not to toot our own horns, but my company knows how to vet aircraft and crews, and we do it for every flight we place our clients on. We’re not the only ones out there who do it right either, by the way. Thankfully, there are other ethical and knowledgeable brokers and operators. So many more than you’d imagine just aren’t, however.
When you’re boarding an illegal 134.5 flight, you’re risking flying with:
- An under experienced crew.
- An under maintained airplane.
- A plane with far less insurance than you’d want.
- A plane whose insurance policy may not even cover you if the FAA realizes your flight was operated illegally.
- An operator who is trying to make much more money from your flight than would be possible if safety was taken seriously.
Furthermore, you risk being fined for unpaid Federal Excise Taxes after your flight is completed, being fined for hiring illegal air services, and so much more. Odds are that your flight will still land safely, but ramp checks of 134.5 flights by FAA officials are a very common reality.
Very few of the recent air crashes with small planes involve a legal 135 flight, yet the practice of air charter always takes a hit in the media when there is an incident with an illegal 134.5 flight.
I implore you to stay away from 134.5 flights, demo flights, etc.; it isn’t worth it. If a flight ever seems to good to be true, there may be reason to be skeptical.
Some final food for thought is that if you have a friend who offers to sell you a few hours on his/her plane, and that plane is not registered on a part 135 certificate, you’re still buying an illegal 134.5 flight. I care about the safety and well being of the air charter consumer first and foremost, and I also care about maintaining the integrity of law abiding ethical charter providers; that is why I share this very important information with you.
If a consumer is shopping strictly for the cheapest flight he/she can find, he/she may be sacrificing aviation safety.