Travel Tips

How to Check the Safety of a Charter Airline

Meryl Block Weissman was returning to New York from Costa Rica on New Year’s Eve when she heard that 10 American tourists and two pilots had been killed in the crash of a Nature Air charter flight at the Pacific coast town of Punta Islita. Just days earlier, she, her extended family and others on a group tour were scheduled to fly the same airline.

But Nature Air made a last-minute change and “instead of three, two-engine planes the group would be put on four, single-engine Cessna planes,” Ms. Block Weissman said. Concerned about the unexpected switch, their tour guide canceled their plans to fly and had them travel by bus and boat instead.

Ms. Block Weissman said that she was “disappointed not to see the rain forest from the air,” but when she learned about the tragedy days later, she wondered if there was anything she could do to judge the safety of a foreign air charter.

“We want the people in the back seat to know there is a resource to get information,” said Art Dawley, the chief executive of Wyvernwhich assesses air charter services for corporate flight departments, frequent users of private aviation and more recently, ordinary travelers who do not usually take charters like Ms. Block Weissman.

For $49, Wyvern provides a report that includes the charter company’s insurance information, maintenance and pilot reports and an audit of the company’s safety systems (if available) so travelers can know “the airline has done everything it can to be sure is has managed risk to the industry standard,” Mr. Dawley said.

Cincinnati-based Arg/us, which also audits the safety practices of participating air charter companies, gives travelers access to similar information through an online query called TripCheq. The fee is $150.

But many people are booked on charters through cruise lines or tour operators and they may take the safety of the airline for granted, said Brian Alexander, an aviation attorney.

“People believe air operators are totally checked out and connected to and insured by the cruise ships or tour people,” he said, but that is not always the case. Mr. Alexander said that travelers on charters they have not booked themselves should always ask the cruise line, “What have you done to assure yourself this is a safe and experienced operation?”

Air travel has never been safer than it was in the year just past with just two fatal accidents among commercial airlines worldwide. Still, risk varies by region. The Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Commonwealth of Independent States in Eurasia have the highest accident rates; between 2.8 and 5.8 accidents per million flights. That’s three to five times the rate in North Asia and North America, according to statistics compiled by the International Air Transport Association.

(Authorities in Costa Rica have since grounded Nature Air while two government agencies conduct an investigation. The decision to shutter the domestic and regional airline came after the General Directorate of Civil Aviation said that staffing was so low it could not safely carry out its flight schedule.)

Many factors contribute to the disparity including how pilots, mechanics, ground personnel and air traffic controllers are hired and trained, how airplanes are maintained and the state of the runways, radar, weather forecasting and communication systems. Governmental oversight is critical, safety specialists said.

As a former air accident investigator and the author of two books on the subject, I am often told by people that they assume regulation is the same around the world, but that is not the case.