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Companies Opt More for Private Jets

Aired August 8, 2001 - 22:08   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Commercial airlines are losing business customers as many companies now opt for private jets. But aviation safety experts are raising some concerns about the training and safety of flight crews piloting these planes. A CNN investigation into one private jet crash is the focus in our cover story tonight. With that in California here's CNN's Charles Feldman.


CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was to have been a joy ride to a vacation resort, 15 people flying from California to a ski outing in Aspen, The approach into the Aspen Pitkin County Airport, because of terrain is considered tricky even under the best of circumstances.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board the flight crew was aware of an FAA warning issued two days before, prohibiting nighttime instrument approaches into the field. But as night approached and bad weather set in, the AV Jet plane arrived on its final approach mere minutes before the nighttime ban. It crashed just short of the runway killing all 15 passengers, a flight attendant, and two pilots.

When investigators quickly concluded the aircraft suffered no apparent mechanical difficulty before the crash, all eyes turned to the tricky approach and the qualifications of the pilots.

MARC FOULKROD, AV JET: The aircraft was operated by a highly experienced crew and as the primary crew assigned to the aircraft had flown multiple trips to and from Aspen during the month of March.

FELDMAN: But documents obtained by CNN paint a portrait of the duo that some aviation safety experts say should have raised red flags and may show a pattern of bad judgment leading up to the March crash.

A lawsuit just filed against AV Jet by the family of 26-year-old Paul Standerman (ph) , who died in the crash alleges that AV Jet should have known of what it calls the "unfitness" of the flight crew, citing their alleged reputation for operating aircraft in a reckless and dangerous manner.

The man at the controls of the AV Jet plane that night was Captain Robert Frisbie. Some two years before the fatal crash, Frisbie, CNN has learned was also pilot in command of this business jet that ran off the runway at Chino Airport in California. An FAA inspector charged Frisbie with operating an aircraft in a careless manner, by landing on a runway that was not of sufficient length due to the inclement weather.

The FAA declined to take action against the pilot.

JIM BURNET, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN: It was of course an accident, and a very serious one to run off the end of the runway. And it suggests problems with judgment in determining under what conditions to land and whether or not to do a go-around.

FELDMAN: Earlier in his career, FAA records show Frisbie was disciplined by another company for making an unsafe take-off from Burbank Airport in California.

Paul Standerford's mother is particularly galled by Captain Frisbie's background.

MICHEL EDWARDS, CRASH VICTIM'S MOTHER: I feel that he was reckless and foolish. And as a result of that I've lost my son and so, if you want to know if I hate him? The answer is yes.

FELDMAN: On the night of the Aspen crash, Frisbie's co-pilot was Peter Kowalczech (ph) . FAA records reveal that Kowalczech failed three critical flight tests for his pilot's licenses -- tests FAA records show the vast majority of applicants pass the first time.

BERT BOTTA, PILOT EVALUATOR: Every pilot has a problem at some point in their career, either failing a check ride or coming close to failing a check ride, or failing a portion of a check ride. So one failure is not a big issue, but three stacked up like that you know over a relatively short period of time would raise a flag for me.

FELDMAN: And just how much did AV Jet know about the background of its two pilots? AV Jet, one of the nation's largest business jet operators repeatedly refused requests by CNN for an interview. It did however provide documents showing Captain Frisbie had been recertified to fly passengers in the Gulf Stream 3 jet shortly before the accident, because he hadn't been flying that kind of aircraft recently.

FAA records show AV Jet apparently failed to request background info on co-pilot Kowalczech, as required by federal law for new hires.

BURNET: You have the pairing of a captain who was recently recertified to operate the equipment he was operating at the time of this accident, paired with a very inexperienced first officer. Now, that poor crew paring of inexperienced or not recently experienced in their position has been an issue in a lot of accidents.

Secondly, you have a very troubled training record on the part of the first officer.

FELDMAN: Several aviation experts question whether pilots with the backgrounds Frisbie and Kowalczech would have ever been hired by a major airline. The business jet industry vigorously defends its overall safety record.

JACK OLCOTT, NATIONAL BUSINESS AVIATION ASSOCIATION: Turbine aircraft flown by a two person professional crew in other words the classic business aircraft, has a safety record on a par with the largest scheduled airlines. FELDMAN: But increasingly, business charter planes are being used much like small airliners. The planes' crews subject to the same strings but not to the rules that cover commercial carriers.

(on camera): With an estimated 12 million passengers flying private jets in the United States, the question being raised is, why the double standard?

(voice-over): It is up the Federal Aviation Administration to decide whether business charter flying ought to be held to the same standards as the airlines. The FAA declined an interview with CNN but has over the years resisted numerous attempts to tighten the regulations.

Charles Feldman, CNN Los Angeles.


HEMMER: Let's take the topic a step further. Joining us now to talk about private jet safety is Jim McKenna, executive director of the Aviation Safety Alliance. And Jack Olcott president of the National Business Aviation Association.

Gentlemen, good evening to both of you tonight.

Jack, how big is the difference between a pilot's experience who is flying for say Delta, and a pilot who is working for a private company?

JACK OLCOTT, NATL. BUSINESS AVIATION ASSN.: The pilot flying for a company such as an NBAA member company has really quite a lot of experience. In fact frequently the requirements to be hired by a corporate operator are higher than the requirements to be hired as a co-pilot for a large scheduled airliner.

HEMMER: How does that translate then, Jack, into safety?

OLCOTT: The safety record of turbine powered aircraft flown by two person professional crews is excellent. It's on a par with the very, very high safety record of the largest scheduled airlines.

HEMMER: But it's not top of the line, correct, the way I understand it. You have four steps for a license. The top line would be airline transport and line underneath that would be commercial flight, right, and that's what you're referring to?

OLCOTT: No. The typical pilot for a corporate operation has an airline transport pilot's license, has minimum requirements for our member companies, average about 4,000 hours for a captain and 2,000 for a co-pilot. You'll find that those standards are very high and on a par with the major airlines. HEMMER: On a par but again, as you stated not quite as much experience as your top of line pilots.

OLCOTT: No, I did not state that.

HEMMER: In your first answer you said they don't have as much experience as many of your other pilots who fly the commercial airliners, and the example I gave was Delta.

OLCOTT: Correction. If I said that, please let me allow a correction here.

HEMMER: Fair enough. Well stated. Jim, what about the flying public. Should they be concerned in any way about the quality of the pilot flying a charter jet?

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION SAFETY ALLIANCE: No, not at all. In this case, Bill, for example, the pilots involved in this accident both had the highest rating that you could get from the FAA, the same rating that every airline pilot in this country would have, the air transport pilot rating.

The captain in this flight had I believe about 5,500 hours or I'm sorry he had over 10,000 hours of flying experience including 175 hours in the airplane that he was flying at the time. The co-pilot had about 5,500 hours and 500 hours in the Gulf Stream. So this was an experienced crew.

These guys work hard to get to the position where a corporation will entrust them at the controls of an airplane that's flying high profile customers.

HEMMER: I apologize for the interruption, we are just tight on time tonight, are you suggesting that with 12 million people flying on private jets a year that we are picking on a problem that does not exist?

MCKENNA: The intro mentioned that these pilots have been facing the same strain as airline pilots but not under the same rules. These pilots often face far tougher strains than airline pilots. They have to be ready to go, they have to be competent to go to any airport that a customer wants to go to. They have to do so competently to make sure the customer in the back is satisfied and comfortable.

So no, I don't think the people who fly on these aircraft even if the number of people flying on these type of aircraft is increasing, nobody has anything to worry about.

HEMMER: Quickly, back to Jack, before we run out of time here, when one watches this story tonight, what should one take away from it?

OLCOTT: That it's very difficult if not impossible to make a judgment of what caused the accident until all the facts are in. That's why we have the National Transportation Safety Board. That's why I believe the FAA is reluctant to make any comment at this time until the NTSB report is in.

HEMMER: Jack Olcott, Jim McKenna, thanks for sharing, gentlemen.

Much appreciated. An issue that will get more and more popular as again we take to the skies across the country.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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