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,” Ms. 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.
Ms. Block Weissman said that she was “disappointed not to see the rain forest from the air,” but when she learned about the tragedy days later, 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 Ms. Block Weissman.
For $49, Wyvern provides a report that includes the charter company’s insurance information, maintenance and pilot reports and an audit of the company’s safety systems (if available) so travelers can know “the airline has done everything it can to be sure is has managed risk to the industry standard,” Mr. Dawley said.
Cincinnati-based 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 attorney.
“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. Mr. 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 the year just past with just 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.
Many factors contribute to the disparity including how pilots, mechanics, ground personnel and air traffic controllers are hired and trained, how airplanes are maintained and the state of the runways, radar, weather forecasting and communication systems. Governmental oversight is critical, safety specialists said.
As a former air accident investigator and the author of two books on the subject, I am often told by people that they assume regulation is the same around the world, but that is not the case.
“Oversight can be anywhere from pretty good in the U.S. and Europe while in many other places it’s a crapshoot,” Mr. Alexander said.
Travelers need to keep safety in perspective. A government not controlling hazards in aviation is probably equally lax on other modes of public transport. Statistically speaking, long distance commercial aviation is safer than driving or any other form of transportation, according to the I.A.T.A.
Here, 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. Michele Markarian, the director of strategic accounts for the website Air Charter Guide and an experienced traveler, once walked away from a flight she had booked because the airplane didn’t look up to snuff.
Allow extra time Travelers may be tempted to set aside their worries if rushing to the next destination. Having extra time to find an alternative will alleviate the pressure of getting on a plane you don’t feel comfortable about.
Check references Call the company and ask for references. Trip Advisor also has an airline review page, and a Twitter search using a hashtag with the airline name can also be illuminating. Already there? Frank Craven of Air Charter Guide recommends asking locals for their opinion by saying, “‘I’m about to fly with ABC, what’s their reputation?’ They might tell you, ‘My drunk uncle is one of the pilots.’ So asking for information is good.”
What does the United States 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 only includes 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 Mr. 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 like 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 United States airline who is now a private safety consultant. Recently, I.A.T.A. started a review process for small planes. The few companies participating can be found online.
Google it Aviation’s thriving online community makes it possible to find out nearly everything you want to know about airplanes. The Air Charter Guide offers information about planes, pilots, operators and a glossary of terms.
Expect to pay Keeping up with regulations, the cost of fuel, training and keeping pilots and mechanics proficient means charter flights will be expensive. “You get what you pay for,” Ms. Markarian said. “A good charter with excellent service, top-notch and good crews is not cheap.”
Christine Negroni is the author of “The Crash Detectives” (Penguin Books).
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