Earlier this month, David Henderson was jailed for 18 months for organising the flight which killed the professional footballer Emiliano Sala, and his pilot, David Ibbotson, in January 2019. The single-engine Piper Malibu crashed in the English Channel during a night flight from Nantes to Cardiff.

The Sala case is highly significant for corporate travel. No questions would be asked about duty of care shown by a travel manager (and their employer) if a traveller for whom they had responsibility perished on a scheduled flight. The travel manager could assert a reasonable presumption that the airline adhered to stringently monitored safety regulations.  

But once businesses start booking less regular suppliers for their travellers, compliance cannot be assumed. It needs actively to be checked, according to Matt Gatenby, senior partner with specialist travel solicitors Travlaw. If an accident does happen, organisers “want to make sure there’s a good paper trail and good diligence they can point to to say this was a horrific accident but it wasn’t for a want of everyone wanting to meet the high standards which are expected,” Gatenby says.

Absence of care in the Sala case was extreme. Henderson was found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft and trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation. In his sentencing remarks, the judge, Mr Justice Foxton, criticised Henderson as “reckless, not merely negligent” for organising the flight without having an Air Operator Certificate or “having in place safety or compliance systems required for the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] to give you an AOC.”

Henderson made no effort to inspect Ibbotson’s qualifications or logbook, hired Ibbotson despite knowing he did not have a night rating and asked Ibbotson to fly Sala “although his licence did not permit him to carry passengers for money.”

Sala is not the first VIP to have perished through a reckless private charter. In August 2001, the hugely successful R&B singer Aaliyah died along with eight others after the overweight or imbalanced aircraft they were flying on crashed during a video shoot in the Bahamas. A catalogue of missteps and corner-cutting emerged in subsequent investigations, including failure to weigh the camera equipment also taken on board. Additionally, the pilot had falsely obtained his commercial licence by logging hundreds of hours of flying he had never flown.

“It really, really rocked the music industry,” says an entertainment sector travel manager, requesting anonymity. “It led to a pivotal shift in the way it went about aircraft rental. Up to that point the travel policy around private aircraft had been fairly loose. From therein you had to ask questions like: is it a twin-engine? Will there be two pilots? Have they done their flying hours? All these questions became standard when before the only question was ‘How much is it?’”

In the Sala case, perhaps, for travel managers, the most significant remark made to Henderson was that: “Your cavalier attitude meant you had not kept even the most basic records.”

Everything must go by the book when using private aircraft, says Calum Hawley, global travel manager for Endeavour Mining. Because of where it operates, Endeavour often has to go private, not just for its air needs but also for accommodation and ground transportation. “We try to control as much of it as possible [through direct ownership of aircraft, ground vehicles and lodging] because if you are not in control the potential for something to go wrong increases,” he says.

However, ownership is not always applicable, so “when we charter flights we have a strict process and policies through which we must go,” Hawley says. “We don’t go against those policies. Normally when you talk about travel, you talk about the three Ps: policy, process and price. Price falls out of it in this situation.”

For Endeavour, process means using two preferred air charter brokers. Policy means, for example, not allowing use of aircraft older than 12 years and filing credentials relating to each flight, including aircraft service history, licences and pilot flying records. “The companies we work with know this,” says Hawley. “If you use Joe Bloggs down the road, you may get the flight for 80 per cent less but you won’t get any paperwork either.”

There is a greater demand for charter aircraft at the moment than there are aircraft able to do it

But how can corporate customers choose reliable suppliers and understand the requirements they should specify for a charter trip? Glenn Hogben, chief executive of the Air Charter Association, which represents private aircraft charter brokers, operators and support businesses such as airports and aircraft manufacturers, has several suggestions.

The first, unsurprisingly, is to use “a member of a body like ours [the ACA belongs to the Air Charter Safety Alliance, representing 13 similar associations worldwide]. All members of the ACA are checked and qualified and we know they are all professional companies.”

Operators and brokers applying to join the ACA need to have operated for a minimum of two years and provide references from two existing members. Other members have a chance to reject the application if they have evidence of malpractice. The ACA also performs standard due diligence on company history and all members must follow a code of practice.

Alternatively, and especially in the US, the entertainment company travel manager recommends using operators approved by Wyvern, a business aviation auditor which offers accreditation for the sector.

In common with both travel managers interviewed for this article, Hogben advocates booking through a broker, especially by clients lacking deep expertise in aircraft hire. “Whether travel bookers are booking directly with an operator or through a broker, they must make sure the operator has an Air Operating Certificate,” he says.

“Brokers who are members of our association will always ensure that is the case because one of the commitments they will make is that they will qualify the operators they use and make sure their documents are up to date. Part of the service brokers provide is to cut away some of the confusion.” This includes advising on crucial issues like selecting the appropriate type of aircraft.

If clients go direct to an operator, the three key documents to ask for copies of are the AOC, plus a certificate of airworthiness and an insurance document.

Finally, says Hogben, “Trust your instincts. If it looks too cheap, there’s normally a reason and that’s something to be cautious about.” Illegal charter operators avoid obtaining the right paperwork because following the required training and safety protocols is expensive.

Ironically, the Sala trial has taken place just as private charter usage is booming. “Air charter has been a lifeline in connecting businesses when scheduled aircraft cannot do the job. There is a greater demand for charter aircraft at the moment than there are aircraft able to do it,” says Hogben, echoing similar remarks last week by the US-based charter company Wheels Up.

Consequently, advice about safe chartering is relevant for a larger number of travel managers than at the time of Sala’s crash nearly three years ago. The demand surge also creates an additional potential hazard: the temptation to book a questionable operator if reliable ones are unavailable. It is a temptation which must, at all costs, be avoided. “You have to be flexible and say ‘we won’t do that, we’ll go tomorrow,’” says Hawley.

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