NTSB Compass to (1) Part 135 SMS&FDM  (2) Consumers caveat emptor

legal illegal
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Guidance from NTSB to Part 135 operators

Guidance from NTSB Charter Consumers

Amplifications to Good Advice

An NTSB Senior Aviation Safety Investigator and a Safety Advocate have published in the Board’s Safety Compass blog a thorough and insightful analysis of Part 135 operations. The article has two audiences and separate but related messages.

To those operators offering flights, the Board urges them to VOLUNTARILY ADOPT SMS[1] and VOLUNTARILY INSTALL flight data recorders and FDM programs. This theme has been repeated here often and those past posts should suffice.[2]

Their second lesson is addressed to consumers who may contract for such services. They point to a New York Times article which postulates that COVID-19 has created greater demand for these flights. The NTSB staff points to a list of items which should be investigated before agreeing to purchase a “charter”

  • Does the operator hold its own FAA Air Carrier Certificate? Request copies.
  • Does the operator have a history of any accidents or recordable incidents?
  • Does the operator have an SMS program?
  • Does the operator use flight data recorders and FDM programs?
  • Does the operator belong to any safety organizations? Do these organizations audit or provide some sort of safety review for their members, which could possibly give an insight into their safety program?

Those are great suggestions, but assessing the answers to these questions may be beyond the ken of even the well-to-do shoppers for a private flight. The Compass article also points to an FAA resource– Safe Air Charter Operations website:

Safe Air Charter Operations

This page provides information more useful to charter customers, especially the tabs (in red box).

What is a legal versus illegal charter, a question with a high correlation in safe versus below standards, is a conundrum worthy of an LLM candidate, measured in both concepts and proof. Here are a few posts which may help a consumer distinguish the good from the bad:

2013 Bolen Opens The Dialogue To Decide What’s Critical To Aviation,      What’s Not And What’s In The Interstitial Gray Areas.

2018 Red Flags For Charter Consumers

2019 Shedding Light On The Gray Market By NBAA

2020 Caveat Emptor Or FAA Regulation ?

        2020More And More On HOLDING OUT Part 91 And Part 135

Here’s a Consumer checklist that may help

Tell whomever is trying to sell the flight that my insurance agent told me that if I am paying for a flight either

  • I need to have a real aviation attorney[[3] ] review the contract to assure that it meets the stricture of Part 91


  • I have to get a copy of your Part 135 certificate, the plane’s listing on the Ops Specs and a document showing the pilots are authorized to fly this plane for the company.

A knowledgeable insurance should/might know that flying an “illegal flight” voids coverage for the plane liability.

These are Red Flags and legitimate questions to pose to the person offering the plane; it should not be considered an insult, but evidence of an informed consumer.

Not fully stop signs but things to raise your concern:

  • There is NO Part 135 certificate on the office/hangar wall. It is a requirement that the document must be visible.
  • The contract to “rent” the plane is short; the FAR requirements to be legal consume pages.
  • The crew, air and ground, refer to you as the operator and/or ask you if you want to fly in these conditions. The certificate holder and the legal Part 91 flight must be under the control of an owner.
  • A scenario not mentioned above: someone with the title of “agent” or “broker” is the initial contact or becomes part of the transaction. The legal documents and requirements require stricter.
  • A truly compliant operation pays attention to details- clean interiors and exterior, no “gorilla” tape repairs, pilots bags are well organized, and they are presentable. Not everyone thinks that cleanliness is close to airworthiness, but a sloppy appearance should signal asking more questions.

Valuable assets like aircraft require carefully constructed legal documents. The fly-by-night types are not inclined to be detail oriented.


this not this



Shaun Williams, Senior Aviation Accident Investigator, and Amy Terrone, Safety Advocate

Shaun Williams Amy Terrone



Ever paid for a helicopter tour over a scenic spot, like the islands of Hawai’i or the Grand Canyon? Ever needed an emergency medical flight to a hospital or known someone who has? Ever joined the company CEO on a chartered flight to visit a client, or pitched in with friends to charter an airplane as part of a hunting trip or wedding party?

p135 v p121_ SMS FDR CRM

Part 135 certificated flightsmore specifically, commuter and on-demand operations—include a variety of aircraft types and segments, many subject to different requirements. Although Part 135 operations are generally very safe, what you may not know is that these operations aren’t required to have all the same safety systems as commercial airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t mandate all air medical service, air taxi, or on-demand flights to have safety management systems (SMSs), flight data recorders and systems (FDR), and some other key safety critical training practices required of passenger-carrying commercial operations (or “Part 121”).


Unfortunately, our recent accident investigations have highlighted this safety gap. We have investigated too many Part 135 accidents since 2000, resulting in dozens of fatalities, that may have been prevented if operators had implemented important safety processes, whether as a result of FAA regulations or their own initiative. Because of our concerns, the NTSB added “Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations” to our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements for 2019–2020.

The number of commercial flights this year has decreased dramatically due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, and there are indications that customers are turning to the Part 135 segment for some of their flying needs. This only increases our concern for the safety of these operations. According to a recent New York Times article, for example, many more travelers are considering Part 135 operations for leisure and business travel due to the limited availability of commercial flights as well as the desire to avoid crowded airports and airplanes.

So, what specific regulations are we asking the FAA to implement that are already required of commercial airliners but not of Part 135 operators? We want the FAA to:

  • require SMSs—a formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing and tracking safety that also helps instill a strong safety culture in operations, and
  • require flight data monitoring programs (FDMs)—that is, use technology that records airplane flight data, then make adjustments based on operational data to improve safety going forward.

Although most executive-style Part 135 jets and turboprop aircraft chartered for business purposes are quite safe and even sometimes operate above and beyond what commercial airlines implement, we have seen a few cases in this segment in recent years that raise concern and prompted the bulk of our recommendations in this area.

2015 crash site

Image from November 2015 Execuflight crash on approach to

the Akron Fulton International airport in Akron, Ohio.

For example, in November 2015, we investigated an accident involving a chartered business jet, Execuflight flight 1526, that crashed into an apartment building on approach to the Akron Fulton International airport in Akron, Ohio. The flight was carrying seven employees of a Florida-based company, all of whom, as well as the captain and first officer, died. Fortunately, no one on the ground was injured. As an on‑demand flight, Execuflight flight 1526 was operating under Part 135 regulations. Our investigation revealed that the operator did not have a SMS or FDM program, either voluntarily or by regulation, that may have prevented the accident[NOTE: this basically concedes that there is no proof that there was any correlation between the crash and the absence of SMS or FDM] As a result of this crash, we recommended that the FAA require that Part 135 operators like Execuflight have SMS and FDM programs, just as commercial airlines have had for years.

Even if the FAA doesn’t require these programs, Part 135 operators should voluntarily adopt them, scalable to their operations, to ensure the highest level of safety for their aircraft and passengers. But, without regulatory requirements, some operators may not implement these safety policies to ensure that their flights are as safe as possible.

It’s important to remember that aviation in the United States is the safest form of transportation. As a customer, you can play a role in keeping it the safest and in improving the safety of on-demand operations. Before you book a flight, do a bit of research and ask a few questions. The following are a few examples of questions you might ask air charter operators directly or the broker if that’s who made your flight arrangements:

  • Does the operator hold its own FAA Air Carrier Certificate? Request copies.

p135 aoc

  • Does the operator have a history of any accidents or recordable incidents?
  • Does the operator have an SMS program?
  • Does the operator use flight data recorders and FDM programs?
  • Does the operator belong to any safety organizations? Do these organizations audit or provide some sort of safety review for their members, which could possibly give an insight into their safety program?

nata and acsf logos

[look for these logos on the website,

marketing material and office walls]

You can visit the websites of organizations such as the Air Charter Safety Foundation and its sister organization, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) [4]for information on these types of operations.


The NATA also fulfills the important role of educating the flying public about illegal charters, an increasing safety concern for the industry and for the NTSB.  The FAA also has a helpful website to identify safe air charter operations and how consumers can identify safe and unsafe operators. Illegal or unlicensed air charter operations—those who avoid FAA regulations and compromise safety for a buck or to meet a customer’s unrealistic demands—pose a serious safety hazard. You should look for charter operators who at least comply with current regulations—if not those that do more, such as have an SMS program in place—and reward them with your business.

By doing a little homework in advance, you can make an informed—and important—decision about boarding a Part 135 flight. You might also be making these flights safer for other passengers by making operators aware that their customers are watching and demanding safer operations.

[1] A good financial case for the value of investing in this safety system can be found here Why Invest In a Manufacturing Safety App? by iReportSource More resources are offered by NATA here National Air Transportation Association | SMS Resources (nata.aero).

[2] NTSB Crash Lesson— Part 135 Carriers Need SMS; Here’s A Way; SMS Is Coming For Part 135s, Air Tour Operators, Part 145s, And PMA—Volunteer Now To Get Ahead Of The SAFETY CURVE; Canada’s TSB Urges Its Air Taxis To Raise The Aviation Safety Bar And The Same Points Appear In The NTSB’s MWL For Part 135; NTSB Chairman’s On Demand Part 135 Comments Ignore An Obvious Solution; ACSF Joins ASIAS & P135 Safety Is Sure To Gain; Self-Initiated Entry Into SMS Adds To Likelihood Of Safety Benefits

P135 flight


[3] Test—write me an opinion letter on the firm’s letterhead signed by a partner  that the contract meets 14 CFR §91.505. If the lawyer retains equanimity, likely to qualify.

[4] NATA Partners with iReportSource to Provide New Member Benefit Empowering Aviation Business SMS Implementation Today, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) announced the launch of a new member benefit Program provided by iReportSource – a mobile and web-based application that streamlines Safety Management System (SMS) implementation, adoption, and management


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