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Illegal Charter Operations

A private plane ready for boarding.Illegal charter operations pose a serious safety hazard to the traveling public, and the FAA works aggressively to identify and shut down rogue operators. The agency also provides information and resources to help passengers ensure the company they hire is legitimate.

The FAA holds charter operators — who transport people and property for hire — to higher standards than private pilots, who are able to take their family or friends for an airplane ride. Illegal charter operations pose a serious safety hazard to the traveling public, and the FAA works aggressively to identify and shut down rogue operators.

Charter operations — also known as commuter and on demand operations — require a higher level of pilot training and certification, aircraft maintenance procedures, and operational safety rules than operations that private pilots conduct. Additionally, FAA inspectors perform more frequent periodic check on charter companies’ pilots, crewmembers and aircraft than they do on private pilot operations. And charter companies’ crewmembers must undergo regular proficiency checks to maintain their FAA certifications.

Illegal charters can take a variety of forms including but not limited to: companies that don't have the required certificates; use aircraft that are not on their FAA-authorized aircraft list; use unqualified pilots; offer ride-sharing; try to transfer operational control of the flight to the customer; operate under one rule when they are required to operate under a different rule; and when the customer and the company act in concert to sign a lease that doesn't include crewmembers, but the company then directs the customer to use a specific flight crew.

The FAA has taken a number of actions to crack down on illegal charter operations. The agency formed a special-focus team to investigate complex cases; partners with the air charter industry to help identify possible illegal operations; and is standing up a new team to collaborate with industry trade associations to educate pilots and operators to ensure they understand all of the rules that apply to charter operations.

The FAA has taken enforcement action against scores of pilots, operators and others associated with illegal charter operations.

At the same time, the FAA also has taken steps to help customers identify both illegal and legitimate operators. The agency issued guidance to help people avoid illegal operators, and makes publicly available a current list of licensed operators and the tail numbers of the aircraft they operate (MS Excel).

Customers also can protect themselves by asking to see a company's FAA-issued air carrier operating certificate, as well as its operations specifications, which will list the specific aircraft the operator has been approved to use.

Additionally, a number of red flags indicate a company may not be a legitimate operator. Among them:

  • If the company provides the aircraft and at least one crewmember, yet attempts to transfer operational control to a customer via any document.
  • A lack of Federal Excise Tax (FET) charged to the customer. Legitimate operators have to charge this. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Lack of a safety briefing or passenger briefing cards.
  • Any evasiveness to questions or concerns. Legitimate operators should be transparent and helpful.
  • If the pilot or someone associated with the company coaches passengers on what to say or do if an FAA inspector meets the aircraft at its destination.

The FAA encourages people to thoroughly research operators they are considering hiring, and to report any suspected illegal activities to the agency. If a member of the public has a concern about the legitimacy of a charter operator, they should contact their local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). People also can call the Air Charter Safety Foundation's toll-free illegal charter reporting hotline at 888-SKY-FLT1 (888-759-3581).

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