Did you know that illegal charters were a thing? I had no idea, but when a spokesperson from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approached me to talk about it, I was instantly captivated by this idea.
I had visions of someone running a previously-misplaced 727 to shuttle people from Sheboygan to West Africa at 500 feet to avoid radar, but of course it’s nothing that amazing. Illegal charters are usually on aircraft of a much smaller scale, often by a company with someone licensed to fly airplanes… but not with the right licensing, training, safety, or maintenance program to actually carry passengers for money. But not all of these violations are small, including one case that actually involved baseball team charters. This appears to be a chronic issue, and the FAA ends up playing whack-a-mole with these fly-by-night operations.
In fact, it’s a big enough problem that the FAA has formed a so-called Special Emphasis Investigations Team to really dig into what it calls “complex cases.” It puts out a list of legal/licensed air charter operators to help consumers, though having the page titled “Part 135 Aircraft Listing from OpSpec D085” doesn’t really seem like it’s going to make it easy for people to find or understand.
I’ve been able to look through several enforcement actions, and man, is this world crazy. In general, it seems like some small mom-and-pop aircraft operator that picks people up and flies them somewhere for money, but like I said, it can be much bigger.
In most cases, these are people who are properly licensed to fly airplanes, as I mentioned. If your buddy has a plane and you want a ride, you can pay for gas and that’s no problem. But once it turns into payment for services, then that puts this into a whole different world of Part 135 charter flying that has significantly more regulations to protect passengers. Just check out some of these I’ve been reading about.
TapJets is a company that at one point had an actual certificate, so I suppose that gives them a leg up. The thing is, you can have a certificate and still fly airplanes in ways you aren’t allowed to fly them. It did just that back in 2016.
The airline had a BAe 125 which it did not have on its Operations Specifications (OpSpec) as required, but that didn’t stop it from flying from New Orleans/Lakefront to Shenandoah Valley with at least one paying passenger. It did the same from Monterey to Aspen, Naples (FL) to Atlanta, and Spring (TX) to Las Vegas. This was no isolated incident.
If that’s not problematic enough, it flew a Falcon 10 from Batesville (AR) to Mesquite (TX). That wasn’t a problem in itself, but the pilot just happened to not have an Airlines Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, so he had no business flying any paying passengers. There were more pilot problems, including a second-in-command who wasn’t trained properly and held nothing more than his student pilot certificate.
It was easy to catch TapJets in the act since they had sent out quotes to clients offering these services. By the end of 2017, the FAA revoked the airline’s certificate.
It seems, incredibly, that TapJets still exists but not as an operator. As it says on its website:
TapJets Technologies Inc, arranges flights on behalf of our clients with FAA Certified FAR Part 135 direct air carriers that exercise full operational control of charter flights at all times. All flights purchased on our platform will be operated by FAR Part 135 direct air carriers that have been certified to provide service for TapJets charter clients and that meet all FAA safety standards. Your itinerary will clearly state the name of the certified operator conducting your flight.
This might be one of my favorite ones in that Rosado so blatantly ignored pretty much all the laws. Between May 2019 and February 2021, Rosado flew at least 52 flights as an air carrier, but it has no certificate or people in any of the required positions to actually get a certificate.
Rosado, it seems, used a Cessna 560, a Beech B200, and a Beech F90 to fly private flights mostly for companies. I see here mentioned Brynfan Associates and Metz Culinary Management going all over the place, ranging from the Scranton – Presque Isle route all the way to Greensville – Sarasota and Lubbock – Tucson.
The fake airline was fined more than $1.1 million for doing this, but the FAA tells me that Rosado still hasn’t settled.
Weathervane Aviation Services apparently was a real company, but in reality it was just somebody who created an LLC and not much more. Using two Cessna 402Cs, this guy went out and did a deal with U.S. Drywall to fly a daily shuttle between New Bedford and Nantucket for $25,000 a month.
After one month in 2016, Weathervane had flown 52 flights, and the FAA sent an email saying this was not allowed without a certificate. What did this person do? Oh nothing… just flew another 634 flights in the next three quarters. Then he renewed the contract and flew another 550 or so flights.
It seems like the FAA needs some more physical enforcement power to actually stop these people from running these flights, because all it could do was put down a $1,001,000 fine. The owner clearly didn’t care, and he would not settle. The FAA has now “per our standard protocols, referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action.”
Humes McCoy is, to the surprise of nobody, a Florida-based company. It had a few props and somehow convinced UPS that it was legitimate. It ended up flying dozens of Cessna Grand Caravan flights for UPS from Raleigh-Durham to Jacksonville (NC), New Bern, and Dare County (NC). It also ran Beech King Air from Columbia (SC) on short-hauls and a Casa 212 out of Cedar Rapids (IA).
I can’t help but wonder how the heck UPS allowed this to happen, but maybe when you aren’t carrying passengers, you care a little less. I dunno. Either way, this was a big one, and the FAA agreed to settle for a mere $5.9 million… but Humes McCoy has not settled and again this one is heading to the Department of Justice.
This may be the strangest one of all. Paradigm Air Operators, Inc had its certificate revoked at the dawn of the pandemic. Why is this strange? Because this wasn’t a small fly-by-night that could easily evade detection.
Paradigm did have a certificate, and it flew 2 757-200s and a 737-400. It flew its flights on high profile routes with high profile customers. For example, it flew the Dolan family — founders of HBO and Cablevision — from St Louis to Cleveland and on to the Caymans. It also regularly flew on behalf of Private Jet Services Group for a variety of travelers all over.
What’s most fascinating to me, however, is it got into sports charters, flying the Oakland A’s, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Texas Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Cleveland Indians despite having no legal authority to do so. It’s not like the teams were dealing with them directly. They apparently went through a broker who then got a nice commission from Paradigm. But that was the tip of the iceberg. Paradigm was flying all around the world and seemingly had no concerns about the legality of it all.
Paradigm did have a certificate, but it was a certificate that only allowed noncommon or private carriage operations. That’s not enough. It also used pilots who were not adequately trained, and it didn’t have the economic authority.
The scale of some of these violations is really remarkable. I can’t believe that this happens so regularly, but I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising considering there is good money to be made.
If you’re worried about this, the FAA says these are some warning signs to look for:
- If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
- If the company provides the aircraft and at least one crewmember, yet attempts to transfer operational control to the passenger.
- No Federal Excise Tax charge. Legitimate operators have to charge this.
- A 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 aviation inspector meets the aircraft at its destination.