US aviation regulators have signalled intention to examine the public charter “loophole” that pilot and flight attendant unions say allows carriers to skirt safety regulations.
“In recent years, scheduled public charter flights operating under Part 380 have expanded in frequency and complexity,” the US Department of Transportation said in a draft notice of intent posted 24 August. “This rapid growth poses an increased risk to safety if left unchecked.”
Part 380 is a set of US regulations that govern charter flying.
In response to the growth of this kind of flying, the Federal Aviation Administration hopes to amend regulations for charter flights that, “in light of recent high-volume operations, appear to be offered to the public as essentially indistinguishable from flights conducted by air carriers as supplemental or domestic operations.”
“Specifically, the size, scope, frequency and complexity of charter operations conducted as ‘on-demand’ operations under the part 135 operating rules has grown significantly over the past 10 years,” the DOT says.
Under the FAA’s safety regulations, public charters flown under the terms of Part 380 rules allow operators to fly “on-demand” operations if the company is using aircraft – including those powered by jet engines – with 30 or fewer passengers.
The move appears to target a new charter operation launched by regional carrier SkyWest Airlines, as well as semi-private jet company JSX, which already uses the model.
SkyWest Charter says that Part 380 flights as currently classified by the FAA are “essential for small community air service today and well into the future”.
“Additionally, [SkyWest Charter] already exceeds current safety requirements and will transition to any additional requirements that may be adopted by the FAA as part of the rulemaking process,” the carrier adds.
JSX did not comment on the FAA’s proposed rule.
The draft notice of intent “provides transparency with Congress as it deliberates [FAA] reauthorisation should it wish to address this issue”, the agency adds. The comment period will be open for 45 days after the final notice is published, the DOT says. The publication date has yet to be announced.
For months, major pilots’ union Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) has decried regional carriers operating scheduled flights under the guise of Part 135 charter operations.
In a 6 July filing with the DOT, ALPA called on federal regulators to close the “loophole… being exploited” by JSX and recently-launched SkyWest Charter.
ALPA argues that the regulatory loophole “allows charter flights to run so frequently that enterprising carriers can market them as scheduled service, but be free from the Part 121 safety regime that governs most scheduled flights”.
That includes allowing passengers and their luggage to bypass security screenings. “Part 121” covers a group of rules governing the vast majority of scheduled commercial flights in the USA.
The pilots’ union also says that, captains and first officers at these companies ”do not have to meet the same strong standards that we hold pilots to in Part 121 operations”.
“Some airlines use the public charter loophole to cut costs by skirting lifesaving safety rules, but if they run similar operations as commercial scheduled airlines, then they are not operating as charter, and that’s an issue,” says ALPA president Jason Ambrosi. “The FAA’s announcement that it intends to issue a rule-making to consider removing the loophole is a significant step in the right direction.”
The Association of Flight Attendants also applauded the draft rule. It says the business model being employed “sells tickets only to those who can afford first class, skirts security screening and obliterates scientifically defined proper rest and training for airline crew and other aviation workers”.
Marketing itself as a “hop-on jet service”, JSX has previously argued in DOT filings that “no such ‘loophole’ exists” and that it is fully compliant with all safety regulations.
Launched in April, SkyWest Charter has called ALPA’s assertions “baseless, accurate and misleading”, and an attempt to banish a non-ALPA-represented carrier from the market.
“SkyWest Charter has completed all regulatory requirements necessary to provide what is already available to numerous operators within the existing regulations and well-established precedent,” SkyWest Airlines chief executive Chip Childs said on 27 April.