Travelers who pay a premium for the convenience of charter air travel could unknowingly end up on a flight operated without direct federal oversight.
That fact — along with an effort to change it — is central to a lawsuit filed by NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol and actress Susan St. James over the 2004 crash that killed their teenage son.
Charter flights have gained in popularity among executives and the wealthy as an alternative to the long lines for commercial flights. They have become safer in the last two decades, but the accident rate is still higher than for commercial airlines.
Not all charter operations are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Those outside the FAA umbrella aren’t required to give flight crews the same training required of certified companies, and it isn’t always obvious which aren’t certified. Some noncertified operators fly under the auspices of other companies.
In Ebersol’s case, the family says it wasn’t told that charter operator Key Air Inc. had hired another operator, Air Castle of Millville, N.J., to make the flight.
Just before takeoff from Montrose, Colo., on Nov. 28, 2004, Ebersol saw slush sliding off the fuselage. Moments later, the plane crashed, killing his 14-year-old son, Edward “Teddy” Ebersol, the pilot and a flight attendant.
According to the Ebersol lawsuit, the Air Castle pilots were unqualified to fly in the weather when the plane crashed.
“This is an issue Dick Ebersol thinks needs to be at the forefront of commercial aviation in America,” said his attorney, Robert Clifford.
Air Castle officials declined to comment.
Key Air Chief Executive Brad Kost said Air Castle had an excellent reputation and the crew possessed all the certificates required by regulators.
Doug Carr, vice president of safety for the National Business Aviation Association, which claims 7,000 members, said charter flights are not inherently more dangerous, but he said some charter operators rely on planes that are more susceptible to poor weather and higher altitudes.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in May that the pilot’s failure to carefully examine the wings for icing probably caused the crash that killed Ebersol’s son.
NTSB members agreed that the pilots should have taken several safety precautions before flying in icing conditions and that their lack of experience in such weather contributed to the crash. They are now urging the FAA to require more training for charter crews and better disclosure to customers.
“We’re looking for more transparency,” NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said.
The safety board also cited a 2005 charter jet crash in New Jersey that injured 10 people as a need for reform.
In that case, a small jet was unable to get airborne and overran a runway at Teterboro Airport because the flight crew failed to properly calculate the plane’s center of gravity. At least half of the eight passengers were not wearing seat belts because they were hidden, and a cabin aide could not open the main door for evacuation, the investigators’ report said.
The NTSB ruled that the FAA’s lack of close oversight of the charter industry was a contributing factor in the Teterboro crash.
FAA officials say they are addressing the concerns by meeting with charter operators to make sure they comply with regulations. The agency also will issue new operating specifications in the next few months to clearly spell out what is required of flight operators.
Ebersol’s flight had been arranged by General Electric Corporate Air Transport, and charter operator Key Air brokered the flight to Air Castle because it didn’t have any planes available, according to NTSB member Deborah A.P. Hersman.
“GE Corporate Air Transport undoubtedly believed it was diligent in insisting on certain standards for the air charter operator, but it did not get what it probably thought it was getting,” Hersman wrote in the NTSB’s report of the crash.
“If an experienced corporate travel organization like GE Corporate Air Transport can be so fooled,” she said, “how easy is it for others with perhaps far less savvy and market power to hire air charter services that are less safe than they expect?”
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