Despite the cost of these measures, the modern air charter industry remains competitive and vibrant. The system, however, can be subject to fraudulent practices; perhaps the most prevalent problem being that of ‘grey charters’, reports of which continue to flood in from all over the globe – despite industry-wide opposition and high-visibility campaigns by air charter associations.
What are ‘Grey Charters’?
Put simply, a grey charter is an unlicenced charter flight operation. A good analogy would perhaps be the unlicenced minicab trade, in that grey chartering cons unsuspecting customers by way of ubiquity and low pricing, but poses a significant risk to the public and harms legitimate operators.
Licenced airlines are bound by a series of strict regulations (e.g. limits on the number of hours a crew can spend in the air and a requirement to carry certain amounts of surplus fuel). Grey charter flights are, generally, offered by private owners, who are not governed by the same set of rules – although there are also recorded instances of licenced operators using their aircraft outside the remit of their licence.
Either way, under unregulated conditions, charter flights become a risky endeavour. Illegal charters are not covered by insurance - if a high percentage of flights are illegal, this is a potentially huge liability issue within the EU.
Grey chartering is far from a new industry phenomenon, but until recently was generally restricted to a few unscrupulous private owners who were willing to charter flights for friends for reduced rates, favours or gifts. Now, grey chartering has become so widespread that many illegal providers use professionally produced websites and brochures, and invest in advertising (both online and offline), to publicly promote their services to unwitting customers.
Why some people elect to use unlicensed charters
Some clients (and probably brokers too) are well aware that a particular charter they have bought is illegal, but choose not to do anything about it, because:
• the aircraft may be privately owned and in extremely fine shape - possibly more luxurious than many available legally for hire
• the insurance may be invalid, but that becomes obvious only in the case of an accident, and flying is very safe these days. Some clients may not be aware that the insurance is invalid, but many private aircraft are maintained to a very high standard, so even those clients who are aware of the situation, believe the risks are worth taking
• the flight may be illegal, but the chance of getting caught is virtually zero
• the critical factor is that it is cheap.
That's the problem. Some sectors of the industry actually seek grey charters because of the cost advantage and the knowledge that no authority in Europe will (or can) do anything about it.
What can be done to stop Grey Charters?
Unfortunately, at present, very little can be done to stop grey chartering. The UK’s aviation industry regulatory bodies (e.g. the Civil Aviation Authority) don’t currently prosecute anyone for illegal charter flights, as they often lack the resources to effectively police the issue, and acquiring the requisite evidence to convict a broker or pilot for a grey charter flight is difficult. According to existing legislation, flying an illegal charter is not illegal until the plane has actually flown – and once in the air, the flight can’t be stopped. The ease with which operators and users can get away with chartering flights illegally is undoubtedly a key driving force behind their prevalence.
As the situation stands, the best way to deal with the problem of grey charters is for law-abiding passengers, operators, pilots and regulatory bodies to do all they can to highlight and marginalize those who abuse the rules and break the law. However, dishonest private owners are not solely responsible for grey charter flights – genuine ignorance of aviation regulation is widespread, and more needs to be done to educate owners, financiers, pilots and the industry in general to prevent incidents.
Compared to the more integrated system of aviation regulation in the US (under the auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration)
Is your flight legal?
Proving whether a flight is illegal can problematic, and thus gauging and/or proving the extent of the issue is difficult. Key signifiers that a flight is not legitimate are the lack of an applicable air operator's certificate, the required insurances or the necessary traffic rights for the particular flight they intend to operate, which can be difficult for an outsider to check.
However, verifying your flight’s legitimacy is easy. Do not be afraid to ask basic questions when hiring an aircraft, whether you have suspicions about the probity of the operator, and the legality of your flight, or not.
BACA recommends the following as a minimum pre-hire test:
• Ask if the aircraft is licenced
• Ask for an operating certificate
• Ask what jurisdiction the aircraft is registered under
Simple inquiries such as these should elicit straight, verifiable answers from the operator. If an operator has trouble responding to any of these queries, or if you know of, or if you encounter, any aviation operations in your area that you believe to be fraudulent, then BACA urges you to report it to us, and/or your local Civil Aviation Authority.