As Covid-related concerns have lifted private air charters for many newcomers, reports of fraud and misrepresentation have followed. The Aviation Charter Association (ACA) and European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) issued a joint statement recently warning of fake websites selling non-existent flights in Europe.
“Alongside this rise in private jet charter, there has been an increase in attempts by fraudsters to steal money from unsuspecting travelers and criminals trying to enter the chain,” said David Edwards, ACA CEO, in the statement. “We have seen examples of fraudsters creating fake websites pretending to be private jet providers to ‘sell’ their services.”
When Robb Report called the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) in Washington D.C., the organization said that it had not encountered that same sort of fraudulent activity in the U.S., but that it had noted a wave of uncertified planes being illegally chartered. “We’d been seeing some problems pre-Covid, but since then it’s been exacerbated,” Ryan Waguespack, a senior vice president at NATA, told Robb Report.
Waguespack was recently part of an Aviation Week webinar where the point was repeatedly made that many of the illegal charters are preying on newcomers who tend to shop by price, as they would on commercial flights, rather than ensuring the aircraft is well maintained and the pilots are properly certified. Because the aircraft is “pretty,” Waguespack said, many newcomers might also believe that it’s equally well maintained. “We know that is far from the truth,” he says.
Brussels-based EBAA doesn’t have statistics on how frequently the European scams have occurred, but the organization has been in touch with multiple victims, who describe a similar experience.
“We know fraudulent companies use pages with images and text stolen from real websites, offering aircraft and using names, registrations and contract templates from real companies to get customers to part with their money,” Robert Baltus, COO of the EBAA, told Robb Report. “Once these fraudulent companies have the money, they disappear and no longer respond to emails.”
Scammers have invested in Google key words, so consumers shouldn’t assume high placement in search results confers legitimacy. Baltus says that those looking to book flights should speak to brokers before booking, seek references and review the details with a critical eye. They should also check that the details make sense and if they are booking with an unfamiliar company, make sure there is a phone number and that it works.
U.S.-based newcomers should certainly follow those practices, but they should also look out for other scams. “We’re seeing an uptick in illegal charter reports coming in through our hotline,” says Waguespack. “People are holding out aircraft for charter without a Part 135 certificate.”
Planes certified for charter use have more stringent FAA safety requirements, must pass through more frequent inspections and employ certified pilots. NATA’s website has a tool that allows visitors to cross-reference tail numbers with certifications. Waguespack also recommends working with a local carrier or broker who can vet individual operators.
Other companies provide services for both frequent and novice air charterers. Argus’ TripCheq provides a way to confirm the legitimacy of a charter operator and crew a few weeks ahead of the flight. Wyvern also has a service for high-net-worth individuals providing due diligence on specific aircraft and crew.
All three trade organizations—ACA, EBAA and NATA—have additional resources and tools on their websites that can help buyers avoid problems.
“Online fraud is unfortunately here to stay,” said Baltus. “The basic lessons people apply to any online transaction should also be applied to booking a business jet flight online. It is important to speak to your broker and let them explain to you who they are and what the best option is for you. Make sure you get references for your broker if you have not dealt with them before.”