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Biz Jet Insights: Are Private Jets Safe?

By: Fabrizio Poli

Published: June 13, 2016

  • There are just over 18,000 private jets in the world.
  • Private jets can fly into more than 5,000 U.S. public airports, while scheduled airlines serve just over 400 airports. The European fleet can fly to over 4,200 airports, with less than 350 serviced by the airlines.
  • Two-thirds of private jet flights are on routes not served by scheduled airlines.
  • Since 2000, there have been five times more fatal crashes on high-end corporate aircraft, than on passenger airlines.

A Typical Scenario

At about 2 a.m. on February 20, 2013, a private jet captain woke up in Greenwood, SC, and drove an hour to Thomson, GA, to prepare to fly a Beechcraft Premier IA biz jet to Nashville, TN, where his client, a vascular surgeon, was scheduled to see patients.

The captain tried to sleep in Nashville, but, as his mobile phone records would show, the longest break between text or calls was an hour and five minutes. “I’m kinda out of the loop,” he told his co-pilot, as they prepared to land back in Thomson that night.

As they were coming in to land, a warning light went off, signaling the antilock brakes weren’t working. The pilots continued anyway, touching the ground for seven seconds before trying to lift off again. They failed to retract speed brakes designed to slow the plane to a stop, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Unable to climb, the jet hit a power pole, and burst into flames. The crash killed the surgeon and four of his staff.

Both the captain and co-pilot were injured. The captain told NTSB investigators he couldn’t remember the landing. The NTSB found him at fault. The pilots dispute the agency’s finding; in ongoing civil suits, claiming the pole was too close to the runway. “Those who depend on pilots to provide safe transportation deserve pilots who are well-rested and otherwise fit for duty,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt wrote in a statement attached to the agency’s final investigative report on the crash. “That did not happen in this case.”

Some Statistics & Stories

Since 2000 there have been five times more fatal accidents in the U.S. involving private and chartered corporate planes than airliners. According to the investigators, 88 per cent of those crashes were caused by human error. Accident records show repeated examples of crews skipping safety checks, working long days, and overlooking hazards such as ice on the wings. In April, NTSB investigators reported the pilots working for billionaire Lewis Katz, who was killed in 2014 when his Gulfstream GIV skidded off a runway, rarely did standard pre-flight safety checks.

In 2001, a chartered jet crashed in Aspen, CO, killing 18. According to NTSB reports, the passenger who paid for the flight was fuming after learning he might miss an airport curfew. This put pressure on the pilot, leading him to try landing, despite not being able to see the runway, investigators concluded. Unfortunately, biz jet pilots are subject to the whims of the people who pay them in a way pilots for airlines aren’t. The Aspen crash was one of 62 fatal accidents since 2000 involving the most-sophisticated models of corporate style jets and turboprops operated by professional pilots. That compares with 13 for passenger airlines.

Since 2007, there have been 106 fatalities on the smaller planes, compared with 50 on airlines, records show.

Airline crashes have become rare because carriers take steps to protect against pilot mistakes. Most civil aviation authorities around the world don’t regularly inspect many corporate aircraft operators and pilots are often left to decide when it’s safe to land or how many hours they work.

When The Passenger Takes Over…

Often enough passengers try and override the pilot in making certain decisions. This happened to me early in my career when I was flying with a newly-qualified captain and the passenger insisted we land at St Moritz’s airport, Samedan, in the Swiss Alps. That day there were storms in the vicinity and most of the valley was overcast. We took a chance and got in okay. However, we rushed to get the lead passenger’s kids onboard together with their suitcases, as the storm was approaching the runway. The aircraft struggled to get airborne and once in the cruise, I checked our weight and balance, to find we were loaded incorrectly. We had been in a rush to avoid weather and satisfy the passengers, compromising flight safety. In addition, once airborne we flew straight into the storm and the small Cessna Citation was rocked all over the place. After 10 minutes of fighting our way above cloud, everything calmed down. The lead passenger came to the flight deck to apologize for pushing us too far. I told him he could buy many things but he couldn’t buy the weather. He agreed.

Core Facts

Among those who have died in small plane crashes over the years:

  • John F. Kennedy Jr.
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • John Denver, Ritchie Valens
  • Buddy Holly
  • Jiles ‘the Big Bopper’ Richardson
  • Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota
  • Russian hockey player Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
  • golfer Payne Stewart
  • Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera
  • Lewis Katz, a former owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils

 

The National Business Aviation Association and the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) say it’s unfair to accuse the entire sector based on the behaviour of a small number of pilots. “For operators whose flight crews routinely adhere to industry best practices, the likelihood of a fatal accident is greatly diminished,” says Peter Ingleton, a director at the Montreal, QC-based IBAC. For example, Warren Buffet’s NetJets, which operates with airline-like safety standards, hasn’t had a fatal accident since 2000. The number of non-fatal accidents involving U.S.-registered business jets nearly doubled from 16 in 2010 to 31 in 2014, according to statistics compiled by Aviation International News. During the same period, the number of accidents involving U.S.-registered turboprops increased from 32 to 43. In the one fatal business jet accident in 2011, all four crew members were killed in a crash during a test flight of a new Gulfstream G650, bearing in mind this was on a test flight, as the G650 was still undergoing certification. Before any airplane is allowed to fly with passengers it needs to do so many flying hours in all sorts of configurations and weather before it’s certified. During this process, design flaws may crop-up and things are fixed and refined.

Monkeys Flying Biz Jets…

So now you’re probably thinking that private jet travel is dangerous. However, it is very safe and to some degree safer than the airlines. A lot will depend on the operator that you use. Before chartering a biz jet you need to ask the following questions:

  • What experience do the pilots have?
  • Where and what type of training have the crew had?
  • How and where is the maintenance done on the aircraft?

 

When you book a ticket with Virgin, British Airways or Lufthansa, the answers to the above questions tell you that the standards are very high and, therefore, their flights safe.

Private jet travel is on the increase and more and more operators are coming onto the scene. Using a broker to book your jet is a good idea, but again they have to have done their due diligence on the operators they use.

Personally, I am not a great fan of charter brokers, nor of these new Apps selling seats on private jets or cheaper biz jet flights. Most of them are price driven, using operators that pay their pilots low salaries and/or cut corners on maintenance, allowing them to sell aircraft cheaply, very often compromising flight safety. In 2008 a chartered jet carrying employees of Kelso, a New York private equity firm, was speeding down the runway of an airport in New Jersey at almost 127 miles per hour when the plane failed to lift off. The pilots hit the brakes and thrust reversers, sending the two engine jet skidding across U.S. Route 46. The jet, a twin-engine Bombardier Challenger CL-600 trying to take off from Teterboro Airport in February 2005, wound up almost halfway inside a clothing warehouse, injuring all 11 people aboard and three on the ground. Thee investigation found that the New York based broker had arranged the flight and vouched for the safety of the operator. A safety board analysis found that the aircraft operator was not authorized by the aviation agency to fly passengers. The safety board attributed the accident to the pilots' failure to ensure that the plane had been loaded within weight and balance limits and that the centre of gravity was properly adjusted. The human factor caused the accident and this was caused by a company cutting corners, paying pilots low salaries, and obviously not attracting then right professionals. You pay peanuts, you get the monkeys…

Pilot Training & Selection

Both airline pilots and private jet pilots go through the same flight schools. The recurrent flight simulator training and the standardization may differ and this is where you need to make sure the biz jet guys have high standards.

However, a flight school qualifies you to fly for hire, it doesn’t make you a pro. As a professional pilot, I have flown in both worlds and have seen good and bad outfits in both. So make sure you do your homework before you go on your next flight on a private jet. The private jet offers you flexibility that the airlines will never be able to give you.

Also consider if you buy your own jet, you will hire your own pilots. You will get to know them and this will be a big plus.

When you step onto an airliner, more often you don’t even see the guys at the front. I remember once flying with a very careless captain who kept missing items on the checklist, etc. Another pilot I flew with complained all day about his leave being cancelled and this distracted him, affecting his performance on that day.

Also add in pilot fatigue, which is becoming one of the major factors, causing aircraft accidents. Airlines are struggling to make money and many regulators are permitting pilots to fly flat out, followed by minimum rest. These are factors that influence performance. If you know your pilots and look after them, chances are they will keep you a lot safer.

Loss of control in-flight (LOC-I) is another leading cause of aircraft crashes and crash-related fatalities worldwide. Rivaled only by controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), LOC-I presents a unique challenge to professional aviation; it highlights a major deficiency in a pilot’s ability to deal with a number of unusual fight attitudes and flight envelop excursions. Regrettably, current pilot training regulatory standards and certification requirements do not address this skill deficiency. However, the FAA in November 2013 finalized a new pilot training rule that will require airlines to provide pilots with “extended envelop” training in simulators by November 2018.

In a report issued by Boeing in July 2012, LOC-I represents the most severe cause factor in commercial aviation over the past 10 years, resulting in the most crash-related fatalities from 2002 through 2011 – even more than CFIT. Within a 10-year span, from 2004 through 2013, LOC-I was responsible for nearly 40 per cent of all commercial aviation accidents. Business aviation statistics for LOC-I are slightly more prominent at roughly 45 per cent of all fatalities being LOC-I. The statistics provide extensive evidence that LOC-I is a significant risk in all flight operations across the entire spectrum of aviation sectors. As such, a flight department’s safety management system (SMS) requires some form of mitigation for this identified risk.

According to industry, one of the best ways to reduce the LOC-I threat is through a proven Upset Recovery Training Program (UPRT). An unsettling large number of business aviation pilots today have never been in a fully developed stall or upset condition in the category and type of aircraft they're flying. I believe aerodynamic upsets are something every pilot carrying passengers should understand, experience, and learn to successfully recover from. I don't believe the average private owner would be comfortable knowing their pilot lacked such training. Several high profile accidents in business aviation and commercial airlines over recent years have brought significant attention to the need for additional training to fill a critical gap between simulator-based scenario training and hands-on inflight training using actual jet aircraft. Providing your pilots with actual training in prevention and recovery from upsets, rather than just exposure to extreme attitudes.

While exposure helps make the all-attitude environment more familiar in some ways, only true UPRT ‘training’ programs provide the skills and proficiency needed to recover from real life situations, when a pilot needs those skills to be second nature to successfully combat and overcome the stress, fear, and panic experienced in a real-world airplane upset situation.

So why has there been a significant increase in business jet accidents? The average airline pilot is flying into well serviced airports and flying the same 30 to 40 routes. With many airports to fly into, the private jet pilot is flying into far more destinations, often enough these airports are not well-equipped. My incident flying into St. Moritz airport, early on in my career, is a classical example of the challenges these small airports present. Combine this with boss/passenger pressure and you get a recipe for disaster.

In the airline world it is always said that airplanes make money when in the air and cost money when on the ground. The same is said about the pilots. In private jet charter world, the same rule applies. The problem lies in the fact that these private jets don’t fly as often. An average airliner flies 4,000 hours a year, compared to the average private jet flying 250 hours…

With the internet and modern Apps on people’s mobile devices, the private jet charter market has become a lot more competitive and, unfortunately, this is mostly price driven. When talking to clients about buying a private jet, I always emphasize that the right pilots are just as important. Hire right, provide them with more training than the regulatory minimum requirements, include Upset Recovery training, and, above all, make sure you don’t tire them out.

We always discourage jet owners from chartering their planes out to others. Some aircraft management companies will tell you this will pay for your own flights. In reality, if you’re lucky you’ll recuperate 10 per cent of your costs, but end up putting more hours on your airplane, increasing the depreciation.

To better illustrate this point, I want to tell you about a friend of mine who flies the Dassault Falcon 7X, 650 to 700 hours a year literally all over the globe. He is always telling me how tired he is. If his boss were to not charter the aircraft to third-party companies, my friend would be flying 400 hours a year and be well-rested for his boss’ flights. So, after spending USD$60 million on a jet, do you really want to be putting your life at risk by being jetted around the skies by fatigued pilots?

Checklist for Safe Private Jet Operations

  • Hire pilots with solid backgrounds
  • Hire pilots that will fit your type of operation
  • Provide your pilots with more simulator training than the regulators’ minimum requirements
  • Send your pilots for upset recovery training
  • Leave the decisions on the aircraft to the pilots, don’t push your crew into unsafe territory
  • Above average pay, attracts above average pilots
  • Operate your aircraft privately, do not charter to third parties
  • Make sure your pilots are well-rested, so they can ALWAYS give you their BEST performance and keep you safe

 

Fabrizio Poli is an aviation analyst and managing partner at Tyrus Wings which offers customized aviation solutions for both commercial and business customers.
aviationfabrizio.poli@tyruswings.com

 

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