Air Charters’ Safety Questioned

Posted June 25, 2003 at 6:39pm

U.S. Jets owns 10 airplanes, has a full staff of pilots available 24 hours a day and can fill charter requests within a mere hour of receiving a call, according to the company’s Web site.

That kind of convenience made the Georgia-based charter jet the perfect choice for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in May 2001, when she needed to go to South Carolina to speak at a YWCA awards ceremony.

While Pelosi might have had a smooth flight aboard U.S. Jets, Federal Aviation Administration records show that the charter company — which went by the name of Colvin Aviation until 1999 — has encountered considerable turbulence in recent years.

In 1998, the FAA issued an emergency order revoking the air carrier’s operating certificate “based on allegations that Colvin officials had falsified flight records and deliberately flew unairworthy aircraft,” according to an FAA press release on the matter.

Although the FAA withdrew the revocation several weeks later and restored the company’s certificate as part of a settlement agreement, the agency in 1999 assessed a $1.32 million fine against the company for “deliberately conducting commercial passenger and cargo flights after the agency had revoked the company’s air carrier certificate.”

That case is still open, according to an FAA spokesman, who could provide no further details on the matter.

U.S. Jets CEO John Colvin did not respond to requests for comment, but his Web site states that the company’s aircraft are “meticulously maintained with safety standards that surpass the requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration.”

In addition to inspecting each aircraft twice prior to takeoff, U.S. Jets “requires its aircraft to be flown with senior captains having a minimum of 5,000 flight hours — significantly more flight time than the FAA requires,” according to the Web site.

A Pelosi spokesman said the Minority Leader rarely flies on chartered aircraft, preferring instead to take commercial flights, but said she will on occasion take a chartered flight for the sake of convenience.

A review of the safety records of several charter companies used by Members of Congress raises questions about just how safe the skies are for the numerous lawmakers who rely on chartered air travel.

The October 2002 crash of a chartered airplane that killed then-Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife, daughter and several others temporarily focused the nation’s attention on the occupational hazard.

An ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the accident has focused on pilot error and adverse weather conditions as possible factors contributing to the crash of the Beech King Air 100 as it was on final approach to the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis. (See related article.)

A review of NTSB and FAA records for several other on-demand air taxis listed in the campaign records for lawmakers, political action committees and party committees turned up a number of troubling incidents. At least five of those companies examined by Roll Call received the lowest rating possible from a Cincinnati company that scores the safety records of such carriers.

“The reason I think people need to be cautious in using charters is that charter operations are revenue-driven,” explained one aviation expert with intimate knowledge of many of the nation’s air taxi operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The operators can make their profit by managing their costs aggressively, which means if you have an older airplane, or cheaper maintenance or cheaper pilots, you can make more money.

“There are some charter operators who live by that creed, and unfortunately their standards may meet minimum FAA standards, but certainly don’t meet the minimum standards that the FAA expects from the [commercial] airlines or corporations expect from their own flight departments,” added the expert.

But charter industry representatives defended their safety record. “I think it would be unfair to say that charters are unsafe in any substantive way,” said Jim Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association.

Coyne noted that charter operators do face additional risk because they are often flying into smaller airports that may not be equipped with the best lighting or runways. But he said the safety record for the industry is improving overall.

Trail of Troubles

Seventeen separate fatal accidents involving non-scheduled U.S. air charters — there were 58 accidents total — claimed 33 lives including Paul Wellstone’s in 2002, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Moreover, on-demand air taxis had nearly two accidents per every 100,000 hours flown — giving that sector of the industry an accident rate more than nine times higher than the major airlines, according to an analysis of NTSB data.

If you can’t get your arms around those figures, consider this: Accident rates for major airlines dictate that a passenger could fly 24 hours a day seven days a week for the next 58 years before he our she would be due for a crash.

The same person would have to fly on a small charter operator for only about six straight years before a calamity could be expected to strike.

“What happens in the charter industry is there’s not the same amount of oversight that you get in the [major] air carriers,” said Mark Fischer, the executive vice president of the Aviation Research Group (ARG/US), which provides instant background checks of charter operators and specific chartered flights.

Continued Fischer: “In general, it’s safe, but I guess what happens is that with the schedules that political figures have to maintain, and the places they go, it’s possible to end up with less qualified, or less thoroughly vetted operations.”

NTSB accident and incident records, FAA Service Difficulty Reports and FAA enforcement actions show that some of the charter companies utilized by Members have been plagued by an array of problems ranging from employees failing mandatory drug tests and improper record-keeping to faulty equipment, recurring mechanical problems in certain aircraft and improper maintenance practices.

For the busy politician, who is often harried by an unpredictable voting schedule, the convenience of a charter air flight makes it the only alternative to the rigidly scheduled commercial air carriers. And for those politicians who must traverse long distances every day on the campaign trail, charters are a necessity.

“I don’t know if I would call it attractive, but sometimes it’s a necessity to get from point A to point B. It’s the only way to do it, [with] time constraints, duties in Washington, duties in the state,” explained Mike Dawson, communications director for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

Grand Aire Express, a Toledo-based air charter company that carries passengers and hauls cargo, was DeWine’s choice when he needed to get around the Buckeye State to embark on some activities related to his leadership PAC.

In April, Grand Aire briefly grounded itself voluntarily after two planes in the company’s fleet — both Dassault Aviation Falcon 20s — crashed on the same day.

Three Grand Aire pilots were killed April 8 when their plane, which was on a routine instructional flight, crashed while on final approach to land in Toledo.

Five hours later, another Grand Aire plane crashed during a routine cargo flight from Texas to St. Louis. The two pilots ditched their plane into the Mississippi River after telling the control tower they had an emergency situation stemming from a fuel problem. The pilots were injured, but survived after being fished out of the river.

The April crashes were the fifth and sixth crashes for Grand Aire, which has since resumed flights but is facing serious financial problems and increased scrutiny by federal regulators — and not for the first time.

A review of dozens of Service Difficulty Reports for Grand Aire aircraft on file with the FAA reveals a number of routine maintenance matters, according to aviation experts consulted for this article, as well as several more troubling incidents.

In October 1997, one of Grand Aire’s Falcon 20s took off only to make an unscheduled landing when the pilot found that the main landing gear doors would not close because a “fuel truck grounding clamp” was still attached to the nose gear.

In early 1998, another Falcon 20 took off only to have the cargo door open in flight. Although a cargo net prevented the door from opening more than a foot, materials were nonetheless sucked out of the aircraft and into the left engine, which miraculously continued to run until the pilot could get the aircraft on the ground. An investigation determined the door had not been locked prior to departure, according to the Service Difficulty Report.

A review of FAA enforcement actions against Grand Aire Express also revealed that over the past decade the carrier has racked up thousands of dollars in civil penalties for various violations, been issued letters of correction and warning letters, and on occasion the airline’s pilots have had their certificates suspended.

In May 2000, the FAA proposed a $195,000 civil fine against the company for allegedly failing to conduct a required ground and in-flight maintenance test after the removal and replacement of one of its aircraft’s engines. According to the Toledo Blade, Grand Aire later insisted it had conducted the required tests, but did not have the paperwork to prove it.

One month later, the FAA assessed a $95,000 civil penalty against Grand Aire Express for performing maintenance on one of its airplanes without referring to the required maintenance manual and for operating the aircraft for 20 days without repairing one of the known problems.

In all, those two problems along with 10 other alleged violations that came to light during a series of inspections between February 1999 and February 2001 prompted the FAA to propose a total civil penalty of $557,500 against Grand Aire. But like most companies that are hit with huge fines, the charter company did not end up paying the exorbitant penalties.

“We had a large settlement with them and they’re paying on it right now,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory, who provided documentation showing that Grand Aire will pay a total civil penalty of $150,000. The company will complete its payments by March 2005, according to a payment schedule agreed to by the FAA.

According to the agency, civil penalties “are a serious matter” — only proposed when FAA investigators and lawyers feel there has been a violation of federal regulations.

“This means that the FAA has found a safety concern,” an FAA fact sheet explains.

But the owner of Grand Aire, Tahir Cheema, defended his company before the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority Board and said the negative media coverage was unjust and devastating to his business, according to an Associated Press account of the meeting.

“Those were accidents, yes they did happen, but it does not mean that every weekend, it has to be in the news media — to hurt me, my customers, and, subsequently, the people of this city,” said Cheema, who was unavailable for comment this week.

A Greater Risk?

“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of Senators through airplane crashes,” Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) noted in a floor speech as the country mourned Wellstone’s death last year. “Many of us have been in planes under questionable circumstances. It is a tragedy we hate to see.”

Members and experts alike agree that the risk of flying on charter flights seems greater for lawmakers as the demands of the campaign trail and unbending schedules sometimes cause them to push the envelope.

“Being a Senator, you feel the pressure. I’ve been there,” explained Walt Lamon, an aviation expert and pilot, who at one time ferried lawmakers around the campaign trail.

As the president of Wyvern Consulting, a company that specializes in aviation safety and has audited numerous charter companies, Lamon cautions politicians not to push charter operators to fly in unsafe weather conditions, or “overstuff the aircraft” with aides, equipment and reporters.

“Purchasers need to be cognizant of their conduct,” Lamon continued. “And in that I mean they need to understand that there are limitations as far as aircraft and where they can and can’t go. … The pressure that a passenger or purchaser exerts can have an effect on the performance of an operator and the potential for an accident.”

As one pilot for a major charter company that ferries lawmakers bemoaned in an interview: “Get-there-itis will kill you. We will not jeopardize safety in trying to get them to an event.”

NATA’s Coyne noted that “get-there-itis” is an established term in the aviation industry. “Politicians, frankly, are the worst offenders in many respects because they live in a world where they are expected to show up. They are not forgiven for not showing up someplace.”

Former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) acknowledged this sort of pressure late last year after Wellstone’s death when he mentioned his GOP colleagues in the Alaska delegation.

“As I have reflected, along with Senator Ted Stevens and [Rep.] Don Young, because of the vast distances between our state of Alaska and Washington, D.C., and the tribulations of long flights back and forth, and the ever-increasing pressures to make dates, particularly during campaigns, having just run a campaign myself, why, I can recall the unpleasant evening flights in bad weather, with a recognition that people expect you to be present at a given time.”

“And it is the demands that are constant pressures to try to fulfill obligations that cause each Member of both the House and the Senate to live, perhaps, on the edge,” Murkowski continued. “Unfortunately, that edge results in additional exposure that is associated with accidents.”

Coyne said the pilot must simply be very assertive and “has to learn to overrule a Senator or someone who is not used to being told no. It would be good advice for anyone flying in a small airplane to let the pilot make the decision.”

According to a Congressional Research Service study, 19 Members have been killed in plane crashes — several of them involving charter flights — since 1928, when Rep. Thaddeus Sweet (R-N.Y.) suffered fatal injuries in an airplane accident near Whitney Point, N.Y.

A charter accident in 1991 took the life of then-Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz (R), who perished along with several others when the Piper Aerostar he was riding in collided with a helicopter over a schoolyard in Merion, Pa.

The helicopter was trying to help Heinz’s pilot determine if his landing gear was down and locked — but an NTSB investigation concluded that the airplane pilot was not familiar enough with his plane and the helicopter pilot was not experienced with flying close to other aircraft.

Other Members — including Stevens and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — have narrowly escaped death in air disasters but have tragically lost people close to them.

In 1964, a small private plane carrying Kennedy crashed in Southampton, Mass., claiming the life of Kennedy aide Edward Moss and the pilot. The parents of Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) survived that crash along with Kennedy. The Massachusetts Senator is still plagued by a back injury sustained in the accident.

Last November following Wellstone’s death, Stevens gave a moving floor speech in which he recounted the difficult thoughts that flooded his mind upon hearing about his colleague’s death.

“I thought of the countless hours I have spent, as a Senator now for 34 years, in small planes, flying around my state on campaigns and on official business,” Stevens said. “I recalled the day in December of 1978 when the plane carrying my wife, Ann, and myself and five friends, coming from Juneau to Anchorage, crashed at the Anchorage Airport.”

Stevens said the days following the crash were particularly difficult.

Recalled Stevens: “The death of a spouse, a colleague, a loved one, or a friend is never easy, but to lose that person in an accident, particularly one you survive, is worse because you will always know you never said goodbye.”

Evaluating Carriers

Experts say there will always be risks associated with air travel, but there are some steps lawmakers can take to try to head off disaster.

Experts caution lawmakers to make sure the charter company they choose for a flight is actually the one they will be flying. It is a common practice in the industry, they say, to subcontract with other charter services for a percentage of the profit if they don’t have an airplane or pilot available to fulfill a customer’s request.

“You can call a charter company and say, ‘I want to be picked up by an airplane on Thursday, I know you’re really good,’” one aviation consultant explained. “But if they’re out of airplanes, they can and often will broker it out to someone you don’t even know and get 15 percent commission.”

“Only if you tell them not to do that can you be sure,” the expert suggested. “It’s sort of like asking for a sedan and having a gypsy cab show up.”

For a fee, Fischer’s company provides online safety ratings of most U.S. charter operators.

While ARG/US typically caters to major corporations such as Merck and Sony, following the crash that took Wellstone’s life, the state of Minnesota signed up for the company’s services.

“Prior to that, they didn’t have any operation for vetting the charter operators that the governor or Senators would be flying on,” Fischer explained.

Drawing on data from the FAA, NTSB and other sources, the ARG/US Charter Evaluation and Qualification analyzes the information before assigning the company one of four ratings — either “Platinum,” “Gold,” “Silver” or “Does Not Qualify.”

Roll Call found at least five charter companies used by federal candidates or party committees — including Grand Aire — have received a “Does Not Qualify” or “DNQ” rating from ARG/US.

So did Business Aviation Courier — a South Dakota-based charter company that has been used by the South Dakota Democratic Party, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.), former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) and others.

“There are only two or three companies we deal with,” explained Johnson’s deputy chief of staff, Bob Martin.

Martin, who spent many a day in the previous campaign cycle racing from one chartered flight to the next, said his boss “feels very comfortable” with the charter companies he flies with, but prefers larger twin engine planes and always insists on having two pilots.

Federal records show that Business Aviation Courier, which hauls both cargo and passengers, has been the subject of a string of FAA enforcement actions and has weathered six accidents and one emergency landing since 1993.

The majority of those accidents — including a fatal 1997 crash of a Cessna 402 in Watertown, S.D., that was blamed on the pilot’s failure to perform a pre-flight inspection to remove ice and snow from the aircraft — were likely caused by pilot errors, according to NTSB reports.

“Accidents are just horrible, horrible tragedies. We all hate to hear about them,” said Linda Barker, a former Democratic state Representative in South Dakota and until recently an owner and vice president of Business Aviation. “I was so sick the day of the Wellstone [crash].”

But sometimes accidents are a painful reality in the flying business, and Barker stands firmly behind the company’s record.

“We’re probably the largest fleet in this part of the country and we charter our state candidates as well as … lobbyists and Members of Congress and the Senators,” Barker said. “We have a large fleet and are a very reputable company.”

Barker said the company hires only skilled, professional pilots — “no part-time people” or “pilots in training” — and that their Beech 200 aircraft are expertly maintained.

Barker had little to say about companies like ARG/US that “have a lot of money” to track companies through publicly available data and render judgments, but she defended her own company’s track record and said her company is happy to open its books any time, and will stand up under review.

“We’ve had a safety audit just recently,” Barker said, explaining that a company called Life Source which transports organs for transplant, asked a third-party audit company to do a safety review of the airline.

Barker said the audit company looked at everything from the pilot records and logbooks to examining the day-to-day operations of the company and she was happy to have them do so. The good charter companies, she said, welcome the scrutiny.

“I think chartering can be very safe, but you have to have parameters,” Barker said.

Telford Aviation — a charter operator based in Bangor, Maine, that ferried around at least two House candidates in the previous election cycle — also received a “DNQ” rating from ARG/US.

Records show the company has weathered several accidents in recent years — including a 1996 crash that killed eight people — and has been the subject of more than a dozen FAA enforcement matters, including several violations of federal drug abatement policies.

Former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) — who in 2000 lost her husband, former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), and her 44-year-old son in a small plane crash on the campaign trail — used Jefferson City Flying Service to travel around her state in the past cycle.

Publicly available documents show Jefferson City Flying Service — which received a gold rating from ARG/US — has one of the best safety records in the business.

Carnahan and her 2002 opponent, current Sen. Jim Talent (R), have also traveled aboard Multi-Aero Inc., a large air charter company based in Festus, Mo.

Multi-Aero Chief Pilot Shane Storz said his company adheres to the highest standards of safety, but the Missouri-based company received a “DNQ” rating from ARG/US.

FAA records show the company has weathered several crashes in recent years and has been cited in a couple of FAA enforcement actions.

On Oct. 23, 2001, Multi-Aero lost a Beech 58 aircraft in the early morning hours, when the plane hit a line of trees and the embankment of a county road 1.25 miles southwest of the Dubuque, Iowa, regional airport. The accident took the life of the 52-year-old pilot — who was on the eighth and final leg of a trip to reposition the plane after spending more than 15 hours on duty.

In 2001, Multi-Aero was fined $5,000 by the FAA and one of the company’s pilots had his certificate suspended for 15 days for violating federal flight time limitations and rest requirements, according to FAA records.

Storz, who has personally ferried Talent and other lawmakers to campaign events and has 10,000 hours of flight experience, admits the company might not have a perfect record. But he insists that his operation, which was launched in 1981, is still safe.

“Like I said, we are held to the highest standards,” Storz said. “The FAA is very stringent on us in terms of records and they’re down here at least on us, every other week … and not to enforce, but just to oversee that the safety is being taken care of.”

Most charter company executives interviewed for this story said it would be next to impossible to find an operation with a completely clean slate.

Moreover, they say, FAA enforcement is usually a wake-up call for most carriers, who say they typically need only one spanking from the FAA to shape up their acts.

“We’ve hauled different politicians statewide because typically our name gets passed on to the next and so on and so forth, so we must have some sort of reputation,” Storz said of his elite clientele.

Other air charter companies also dispute the validity of the ARG/US rating system.

Aviation Charter — the charter service that operated the fatal Wellstone flight — is fighting the “Does Not Qualify” rating it received from ARG/US in court. The Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company disputes the accuracy of information contained in an ARG/US safety report and has filed a libel suit against the company in court.

Staff for some lawmakers said they do their own safety checks before chartering a flight.

“We actually had some policies in place before the Senator Wellstone tragedy, and as a result of the Senator Wellstone tragedy we have developed a checklist that we now use, that covers a lot of different things, and our procedures have been upgraded,” Dawson said.

Johnson aide Bob Martin admitted that the Senator “doesn’t have this big vetting process” but said they are “thorough” about checking out the charter companies they use. But following the Wellstone tragedy last year, Johnson has seemed more cautious.

Johnson and his wife, Barbara, both of whom were close friends of the Wellstones, were informed of the tragedy last Oct. 25 shortly after they stepped off their own charter flight, which was scheduled to take them to a variety of campaign events around South Dakota.

Martin said the Senator canceled the rest of his own charter flight plans that day and now tries to limit the amount of time he spends in the air.

“He has said, since the election, that he wants to reduce the number of charters [he flies on] when he can,” Martin explained. “It’s a big state, it’s a rural state and sometimes by necessity, you have to fly, but he has said, unless there’s an absolute need, he would just as soon drive.”

Added Martin: “In some areas in South Dakota, the community is so small that the runway is a grass landing strip. … I think he’s probably had enough of those kind of landing strips.”