The growing use of private aviation for both business and leisure trips has prompted a growth in illegal charters – owners or operators who offer charter but don’t follow the required mandates to ensure the safety of passengers.

And, with travel managers’ obligations for duty of care, knowing the warning signs is becoming increasingly important.
This focus on illegal charters springs from the death in an illegal charter accident of footballer Emilio Sala in 2019 when neither the pilot nor aircraft were licensed or sufficiently qualified for charter service. The agent arranging the flight was jailed for 18 months. In addition to increased risk, booking an illegal charter would likely void the operator’s insurance as well as invalidate the passenger’s life assurance.

“It’s a criminal act to knowingly operate or arrange an illegal charter so when this takes place, they are operated discreetly, and with no knowledge of the authorities or sometimes even the passengers themselves,” Clive Chalmers, Air Partner vice president charter UK, says. “Illegal charters are an unlicensed aircraft charter operation whereby the operator of the aircraft does not have the necessary permissions or approvals to operate passenger flights in return for payment for such flights.”

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It is not just about the approvals but what goes into achieving them. “Quite rightly the process to obtain the necessary approvals to operate legitimate charters is rigorous and requires adherence to strict safety criteria designed to protect the passenger and those chartering the aircraft on their behalf,” Chalmers continues. “Once these standards have been met, the operator is issued with an AOC (Aircraft Operator Certificate) and is subject to on-going review and scrutiny by the issuing authority. Illegal charters operate without having gone through this process and as such, there is no official auditing or checks of the safety of the aircraft and the pilots flying the aircraft. This is why a flight that involves a payment, operated by aircraft operator that does not have a valid AOC, is classed as an illegal charter.”

According to Ken Thompson, managing director of regulatory affairs, for National Air Transport Association, “Illegal air charter operations distort the market by evading the higher costs of legal air charter operations, including adherence to appropriate safety measures and insurance.”

Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Ian Gregor explains that FAA oversight is more stringent for charter operators, including increased inspections of the company, its pilots and overall operations. As with airlines, charter crews must undergo regular proficiency checks.

“By avoiding the training, maintenance and safety program costs that legal operators incur, illegal operators are able to undercut prices of legitimate operators,” Gregor says. “But they’re also undercutting safety and threatening their passengers’ lives. We work aggressively with industry to ferret out rogue operators including a Special Emphasis Investigations Team and partnering with the NATA’s Air Charter Safety Foundation. We have an outreach program to educate pilots and operators to ensure they know the rules as well as providing passengers with a list of legal and licensed air charter operators.”

Looking Out for the Passenger
Indeed, travel managers may not be aware of all the risks inherent with not vetting an operator or what to look for, which is why the industry offers a website Flying Smarter: Avoid Illegal Charter (, which has guidelines to help consumers, aircraft owners and charter operators spot the warning signs of an illegal charter.
“Opting for an illegal charter carries substantial risks related to safety, legality, insurance, reliability, reputation, and financial well-being,” warned vice president Americas Kari Bigot at Chapman Freeborn, which just launched its new jet membership program for its 2,500 worldwide aircraft.

While no statistics exist about the prevalence of illegal charters, NATA, a leader in stopping illegal charters, is tracking this issue closely and hopes to provide metrics later this year.

Meanwhile, Bigot provided some insight. “A mere 25 percent of the 575-plus US charter operators meet the rigorous standards required to cater to our discerning corporate clients,” she told Business Travel Executive. “We prioritize safety and excellence through our Safety Team. We vet all operators and set stringent crew standards and minima with mandatory crew checks on every flight. Exceeding the rigors of our standard approval process, we guarantee each flight is bolstered with a minimum liability insurance of $150 million, while the average flight enjoys a robust $250 million coverage, offering our corporate clients unparalleled peace of mind in every venture.”

Legitimate charter companies often operate above FAA standards. “Our team requires operators to validate and show proof of their Part 135 FAA [or other regulatory authority] flight certificate and disclose their audit ratings and insurance through our safety team using our proprietary software, TripGrade,” says Private Jet Services president Lezlea List. “All vendors we work with are actively accredited by at least one recognized safety audit program conducted by the FAA or other regulatory authorities, international safety programs and in-house safety audits.”

As List indicated, regulatory authorities are not the only oversight for legitimate charter companies. Industry-led organizations audit operator safety programs which complements in-house safety audits and include ratings by Argus International, Wyvern and The International Business Aviation Council IS-BAO safety audit. Achieving this ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ from these auditing companies is highly sought after and prominently displayed as part of legitimate company’s safety assurances. In addition, the entire private aviation industry and regulators across the world are working together to ensure these rogue operators are caught.

“The Air Charter Association is constantly in discussions with relevant civil aviation authorities to ensure they are applying a high level of monitoring and inspection of flights where there is suspicion of any illegal charter activity,” explains Air Charter Association chair Kevin Ducksbury. “We have an anonymous ‘report an illegal charter’ facility on our website through which we alert relevant civil aviation authorities of a suspected illegal flight.”

Warning Signs
“Travel managers who opt for illegal charter flights are exposing themselves and their organizations to several significant risks,” says Bigot. “Illegal charter operators often cut corners on safety standards to reduce costs. This can lead to a higher risk of accidents and incidents, jeopardizing the safety of passengers and crew members. Unlicensed charter operators are in violation of aviation regulations and may face legal consequences. Illegal charter operators may not carry adequate insurance coverage, leaving travelers without proper protection in case of accidents, injuries, or property damage. Illegal charter operators may not have the same level of operational expertise, reliability or customer support as licensed operators. This can result in unpredictable service quality, delays or cancellations.

Associating with illegal charter operators can seriously damage a travel manager's professional reputation and the reputation of their organization. It may also deter potential clients or partners from doing business with them.”

The usual consumer mantra ‘buyer beware’ is often the start and is why NATA and FAA collaborated on consumer guidance to help ensure the charter is legal. NATA and ACA members are active in several areas to stem illegal flights.
“If the price is too good to be true, it probably is,” FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor says, illuminating the first clue in watching for rogue charters. “Legitimate operators achieve a high level of FAA pilot training and certification, aircraft maintenance and operational safety rules so it is important to establish these are being met before flying.”

NATA is actively engaged with the FAA, Thompson says. “We are partnering with the FAA to provide guidance on identifying, and steps to avoiding illegal operations and educating Congress on the dangers of illegal charter and want to see FAA better equipped to combat this real safety issue. We are also educating the public through campaigns and resources including publications such as Chartering an Aircraft, A Consumer Guide and Risks of Illegal Charter. We assist FAA in enforcement with data collection and reporting and leverage existing FAA data sources to help FAA focus on illegal charter. Finally, we help legitimate charter companies provide FAA with reports of suspected illegal charter activity.”

Similarly, ACA holds an annual “Fly Legal” awareness day – held each year on the anniversary Emilio Sala’s death – to continue to build awareness to users of charter aircraft and the charter industry around illegal charter flights and the potential signs that may indicate a flight is being conducted illegally.

Chalmers explains illegal charters are more prevalent in certain geographic regions such as the Middle East, Asia and Africa. They occur where charter markets are less established and where regulators have fewer resources to police this activity and are less engaged with business aviation operations. In the US, for example, the FAA publishes violations and fines companies found guilty of operating illegal charters, setting the benchmark in the industry for dealing with those found guilty of operating illegal charter flights.

“It is important people verify the legitimacy of their charter operator before booking by using FAA’s list of licensed charter operators,” advises Gregor. “Regardless, passengers should ask to see the company Air Carrier or Operating Certificate to confirm the aircraft is authorized for charter. A huge red flag is the operator refusing or being evasive on that request.”

Transparency is critical to avoid any type of illegal charter, says List. “The inability or reluctance of vendors or operators to reveal critical information signals an evident absence of transparency.”

Chalmers at Air Partner agrees. “It’s all about asking questions of the provider you are working with,” he adds. “At a minimum, you should always be asking for evidence of the proposed carrier’s AOC along with the minimum qualifications and hours experience their pilots need to have to be employed by them. Always ensure you are signing a contract that clearly outlined the terms which the provider is committing to, including the requirement to have a valid AOC in place. Use a reputable provider that comes recommended and/or can demonstrate their standing and accreditation within the industry. Be very skeptical of low pricing.”

Another red flag is if the company provides the aircraft and at least one crewmember, but asks to transfer operational control to the passenger, making them responsible for an operation they may know nothing about. The company should be responsible for operational control for both liability and safety reasons. Also, if the company fails to assess the required federal excise tax, it is likely not a legitimate operator. Other issues include a lack of safety briefing or passenger briefing cards, evasive answers to questions or if the company coaches passengers on what to say and do if an FAA inspectors meets the aircraft at the destination.

The complexities of chartering aircraft to meet transportation needs are high so it is critical to partner with a reputable air charter company that not only prioritizes safety but can advise on how best to meet client needs for the right aircraft, amenities and services required for individual missions.