Opinion: How to book safe and legal business aviation travel

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by George Galanopoulos, managing director at Luxaviation UK

Safety is the first priority of every pilot. You’d think that simple statement was beyond dispute and yet – incredibly – unsafe and illegal private aircraft flights take place every day.

Only this February, pilot Robert Murgatroyd was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for flying an illegal and overloaded charter flight, which crashed in Greater Manchester. Murgatroyd was found guilty of a number of offences, including conducting a public transport flight without an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) and recklessly endangering the safety of an aircraft or persons in an aircraft. Let’s be absolutely clear – Murgatroyd is not a commercial pilot. The flight should never have taken off.

Let’s be equally clear that Murgatroyd’s unacceptable attitude to safety is not shared by the legitimate business aviation community. BACA – The Air Charter Association – has rightly welcomed the verdicts of the jury in this case and asserts the passengers “were very lucky that the accident did not result in a serious tragedy”.

Air safety, as BACA would undoubtedly agree, must never be left to luck. BACA’s chairman Richard Mumford has correctly said, “This accident appears to have been entirely preventable and was operated in flagrant disregard for the law.”

This so-called ‘grey market’ – the illegal practice of chartering a private aircraft to innocent and trusting people without having an AOC – must be closed. The public must be informed of the unacceptable risks and protected.

Here are eight steps I urge you to take the next time you book a charter flight:

  1. Confirm the operator of the flight holds an AOC, the approval granted by a national aviation authority to use aircraft for commercial purposes. The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) leaves no room for doubt, stating that “any individual, organisation or company that wishes to operate an aircraft for the purpose of commercial air transport must, by law, obtain an AOC from the CAA”. You’ll find a list of UK AOC holders on the UK CAA website here. If you can’t see the name you are looking for, call the CAA on 0330 022 1500.
  2. Ensure the aircraft on which you will fly is included on the AOC. An AOC might only include aircraft registered in Guernsey, for example. Having established your proposed operator does indeed hold a UK AOC, you can check the specific aircraft on which you will fly is registered in the UK here. Just enter the aircraft’s registration, without the ‘G-’ prefix.
  3. Confirm the pilot is appropriately licensed and rated for the planned flight. In basic terms, make sure he or she is legally allowed to fly this particular service on this particular aircraft type. Although Murgatroyd held a private pilot’s licence, he was in no way legally permitted to fly commercial services for profit.
  4. Act on your instincts. If something feels wrong and unprofessional as you make the booking arrangements or the payment processes seem surprisingly vague and informal, something probably is wrong.
  5. Remember, AOCs are only granted to operators demonstrating compliance with strict requirements in areas including safety, maintenance and working practice standards. Through ongoing surveillance, the CAA is empowered to vary or revoke an AOC where appropriate. In the grey market, individuals and operators are scandalously happy to avoid the costs of obtaining an AOC and avoid the investments and responsibility required to meet the necessary standards. Do you really want to book flights with someone willing to compromise safety to save money? If the price of the flight seems suspiciously low, the operators’ standards may be dangerously low too.
  6. Don’t forget illegal chartering is not only likely to void the operator’s insurance cover but also likely to invalidate the passenger’s life assurance.
  7. Remember, almost anyone can put together a convincing website or app these days. An impressive online presence does not necessarily mean the operator is legitimate.
  8. If in doubt, contact the UK CAA. Hopefully, your concerns will prove unfounded. If not, at least you’ll be performing the public service of reporting a possible illegal charter operation.
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