Could you end up at a crash site as one of the unfortunate passengers of "An Illegal Air Taxi Operator?"
Starting an illegal air charter is as easy as putting an ad in the Yellow Pages, rounding up clients and filling your plane with fuel. Getting caught is nearly impossible.
It's a combination that has made South Florida the center of a booming and increasingly dangerous form of black market travel, aviation experts say. Federal regulators do nothing as dozens of illegal charters from Opa-locka to Lantana operate as gypsy cabs of the air, darting to the Bahamas and Key West on planes that are unlicensed, uninsured, uninspected and might not meet federal safety standards.
Federal Aviation Administration records, crash reports and interviews with two dozen pilots, air safety experts and federal investigators detail a monitoring system so inadequate and riddled with loopholes that the FAA has no record of catching anyone. That means illegal charters compete as equals with highly regulated, licensed carriers - and the flying public often doesn't know the difference.
A review of FAA records found that at least 14 companies and owners advertising in the South Florida's Yellow Pages are flying without a commercial license. Aviation workers at several area airports said the actual number is much higher because most illegal pilots work quietly out of small hangars and don't advertise, making them difficult to track.
"It's been a problem for 35 years, but it's much worse now than ever before," said Owen Gassaway, whose company, Florida Airmotive, has run the Lantana airport since 1945. "Nobody checks their maintenance records or their flight logs. You just give them your money and take your chances."
Just how much of a chance depends on how well your plane is maintained, aviation experts said.
Licensed charters are required to comply with strict maintenance programs and their pilots undergo advanced training, all under intense FAA scrutiny. Unlicensed carriers are not checked by regulators, sliding by undetected because the agency says its first priority is to make sure licensed air carriers are safe.
But an accident in April that left four people dead has the FAA focusing on an independent owner and a private pilot who for years have operated a mail charter service and also flew people to the Bahamas.
A family on the way to a funeral in the Bahamas was killed when a plane owned by Peter Skobin and flown by his fiancee, Peachie Tianvan, crashed on takeoff from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Tianvan survived but was seriously injured. Neither has a commercial license.
Skobin and Tianvan are under investigation for that accident and another last summer in which Skobin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean with three passengers aboard, the FAA said, adding that it is specifically looking for license violations.
Skobin could not be reached for comment despite several messages left on his cell phone and at his business number in the Bahamas. The investigation is civil - operating without a commercial license carries no criminal penalties.
"There's a huge proliferation of these guys running around, and the risks to the public go up accordingly," said Stuart Klaskin, a partner in the Coral Gables aviation consulting firm of Klaskin and Kuschner.
FAA investigators say they can't do much to curtail the flights, and critics say they don't really try. The agency doesn't keep track of violations, and officials in Miami and Fort Lauderdale said they can't remember the last time anyone was cited.
"We do investigate when we are given information about illegal carriers, but it is primarily the responsibility of the businessman to get a license and follow the law," said Katherine Prefetti, the FAA's national resource specialist for commercial charters. "That's where the responsibility lies. Our regulations are written for people who are responsible and get proper licenses."
That stance outrages pilots and aviation experts, who compare it to a police force suggesting that criminals should follow the law, but don't take action when they flout it.
Supply and Demand
Most of the illegal flights head to the Bahamas, where the economy relies heavily on charters from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to stock restaurants and hotels with food, furniture and tourists. With weekly trips estimated to run into the hundreds, even established carriers say the demand for operators outstrips the supply of companies licensed under rigid FAA regulations.
So a growing number of private pilots are filling that demand and skirting the FAA by flying without commercial licenses, aviation experts said. Without the expenses of drug testing, mountains of paperwork and the extensive safety checks and maintenance required of licensed operators, they can dramatically undercut legal operators' prices.
Inspectors, when they visit hangars to conduct their weekly, intensive checks, often walk past unlicensed outfits operating side-by-side with the legal companies. But an FAA spokesman said the agency needs "probable cause" to investigate an illegal charter.
"How is it that the FAA has enough time to [harass] the legitimate operators who follow the rules, but can't spend two seconds going after the guys who openly break the rules?" said Robert Bradley, owner of an aircraft maintenance company at Executive Airport.
Federal records show the agency has issued 444 fines, suspensions or revocations against licensed operators in Florida since 1996, but has not taken action against any unlicensed charters.
"I know it's tough to say we're taking this seriously when we haven't caught anyone," said Paul Turk, spokesman for the FAA in Washington. "But it is a priority for the agency, and it is something we are taking a closer look at."
That should have happened long ago, licensed carriers said.
"I resent the fact that people I have to compete with can undercut our prices because they don't have to spend money following the FAA regulations," said Bill Gardner, the chief pilot for Alamo Jet, an executive charter service in Fort Lauderdale. "I've reported specific violations to the FAA, and their inspectors tell us to bring them the evidence. They want us to do all of their work."
His complaints are echoed by many licensed charter services, whose owners describe years of unanswered letters and unanswered calls to the FAA tips hotline.
Not all of the unlicensed charters are unsafe, local aviation mechanics and some legal operators said, and many are flown by experienced pilots. But the odds of something going wrong increase with a lack of supervision, they said. And without a proper license, illegal operators can't get insurance to carry paying passengers, carriers and an insurance agent said.
"We literally see the FAA every other day, if not more, so you can see the type of safety checks we're talking about," said Bill Jones, the chief executive officer of Chalk Airlines. "You're talking about the difference between a professional airline and some guy in a private plane with no regulation. Of course it's not going to be anywhere near as safe."
At the Opa-locka, Executive, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Lantana airports, airport veterans had little problem pointing out two dozen planes and pilots they said were operating illegally.
In several visits to local airports over four weeks, the Sun-Sentinel observed more than a dozen pilots loading and unloading passengers and cargo. In two instances, passengers handed money to the pilots.
When asked if they were licensed, the pilots and passengers refused to talk. A check of the federal registration numbers for each plane showed that the planes and the owners were licensed only for private flights, not commercial.
Many aviation experts said the FAA inspectors are put in a tough position because the agency's leadership hasn't set priorities.
"I'm not an apologist for the FAA by any means, but the local group of inspectors, particularly in Fort Lauderdale, does the best it can," said Klaskin, the Coral Gables consultant. "There's a systemic problem with the agency in which they can't balance between enforcing compliance or punishing noncompliance. There aren't enough agents for them to do both, at least not the way they are organized now."
Klaskin and others say there are three major problems.
First, FAA inspectors are trained almost exclusively for mechanical safety and have little of the detective training needed to gather information to prove cases of lawbreaking.
Second, there are no criminal penalties for anyone caught operating illegally, only administrative citations and fines of no more than a few thousand dollars on first offense, leaving the FAA little leverage.
But the biggest obstacle is what every pilot interviewed called large loopholes in federal law that let noncommercial pilots break the rules.
Under FAA regulations, independent pilots can carry passengers or freight as long as they don't charge for the services. They can, however, ask passengers to chip in for expenses like gas and landing fees.
Because of that, black market pilots and their passengers often work out stories when the transaction is made, agreeing to say that they are friends traveling together on vacation and sharing expenses.
Thus the pilot gets protection from regulators and the passengers get a cheap ride to the islands, usually for around $150 per passenger compared with the $250 or so commercial firms charge.
Even easier is transporting food, furniture, clothing and other necessities. If confronted, a pilot just has to say the goods are for personal use, and the FAA can't do anything, investigators said.
"We run into that a lot, and it usually leads to a dead end," said Bill Weaver, the head of the FAA's Fort Lauderdale office. "It's frustrating, but there's only so much you can do."
Help from Consumers
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said current laws hamper the agency's efforts. With no criminal penalties, the FAA can only issue citations and begin a lengthy process of trying to revoke a pilots license.
Bergen and Prefetti said the agency is working hard to educate consumers to check licenses, examine the planes and call local FAA offices to get a history for a pilot and his plane.
Athley Gamber, who has headed Twin Air in Fort Lauderdale for more than three decades, said that is the best stance the agency can take.
"What it all comes down to is the person buying the ticket has to take some responsibility to make sure he's getting on a licensed airplane." Gamber said. "Check it out, ask to see the license and make sure the plane looks clean and well cared for."
"When you think about it, what can the FAA really do to stop these people?" she said. "It's been going on forever and it won't stop. You're looking at a problem that really doesn't have a solution."