Online Extra: How Safe Are the Chartered Skies?

It may seem as if more rented planes are crashing, but in fact they've gotten safer. An expert tells how to choose a charter aircraft outfit

By Christopher Palmeri

Are they safe? The crashes in recent years that led to the deaths of golfer Payne Stewart and NBC executive Dick Ebersol's son have put private-jet safety in the spotlight. According to the latest statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board, chartered aircraft are safer than they were in the 1980s -- currently their accident rate stands at two accidents per 100,000 flight hours (vs. four per 100,000 in the late '80s) -- but that rate is still roughly 10 times higher than for commercial airlines.

Defense of the private plane industry comes from an unlikely source: Ladd Sanger, an attorney who specializes in suing airlines, manufacturers, and charter operators after crashes. A licensed pilot and frequent customer of charter services, Sanger has some tips for execs hiring a private plane.

Are all the new private planes in the air likely to cause more accidents?

Corporate jets are an incredibly efficient way to travel, every bit as safe as commercial airlines. I do think we are going to have a safety issue in two or three years' time when the new very light jets come out in force. Many of the people who'll be buying them will be entrepreneurs and professionals traveling on business trips. They have more on their minds than flying aircraft. When you get owner-flown planes the accidents go up significantly.

What should somebody look for when chartering a private jet?

People booking travel often look at the bottom line and take the cheapest bid. The charter business is very competitive with razor-thin profit margins and tremendously high overhead so there is incentive for operators to cut corners. I want to build a relationship with a charter operator I trust. The gold standard operators employ their own pilots. Those pilots get recurring training and are used to flying that specific aircraft.

The operator should have a significant insurance policy. If an insurer writes a $50 million-plus policy, that gives me assurance that the insurer is comfortable with that charter company. You should know where the maintenance is done. Make sure it's at a manufacturer-approved service center, as opposed to some mechanic on the field who's not certified to work on that aircraft. You also want to make sure you don't get brokered out to another operator you don't know. Unfortunately, you only get one chance to make a mistake.

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau

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