The aviation industry is one of the most regulated industries in the world, with a large number of professionals ensuring that operations run smoothly and, even more important, safely. However, so-called grey charter flights can present a considerable threat to this system as they operate outside of any legal framework.
A grey charter is any unlicensed charter flight operation. While these illegal operations aren't new on the aviation market, they have been on the rise throughout Europe and the rest of the world in recent years.
Grey charter flights are a risky proposition. Though they may offer attractive pricing and conditions, they are actually illegal operations, and as such, they don't necessarily adhere to the same safety standards you'd expect from any regular private or commercial flight.
When talking about an unlicensed charter operation, we refer to the Air Operator Certificate (AOC) - the document that grants an aircraft operator permission to provide commercial air transport activities. Operators or airlines that do not hold an AOC are not allowed to offer any type of commercial air transport activities.
Besides hurting the economic health of approved charter operators, grey charter flights also pose significant safety risks. Despite the fact that all commercially operated aircraft and crew are subject to rigorous technical, legal, maintenance and operational standards, unlicensed charter operators may not have been subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
As grey charter flights are operated in violation of the law, there is no oversight in place - neither from aviation authorities nor insurance companies. This means that grey charters do not adhere to any rules and criteria when it comes to overall flight safety, posing a significant risk to passengers and customers.
Because illegal charter operations are not subject to the same rigorous rules as legitimate businesses when it comes to routes, pilot training, maintenance, schedules, crew rest, and more, they will not be affected by these expenses in the same way. Hence, these illegal operations may be much more lucrative and thus more attractive to less less-reputable operators and aircraft owners.
These lower operating costs will usually translate into lower and more competitive prices for the end customer, making them hard to resist for travelers, especially those who may not even be aware such a thing as grey charters exist.
The success of one grey charter operator, even though hard to notice from the outside, may attract the attention of other companies who envy its profitability and many flights, thus sustaining or even increasing overall grey charter operations worldwide.
Illegal charter operations are often very hard to spot, especially if you're not familiar with the aviation industry and all legal requirements involved with commercial flight operations.
However, there are some telltale signs that can help you determine if the legitimacy of a flight should be questioned.
The first thing that can tip you off is the price. If a flight is considerably cheaper than similar flights offered by many other operators, it's possible grey market conditions are involved. Although prices can vary depending on many other factors as well, so this isn't a certain sign of illegitimacy, but it never hurts to research a bit further.
Another way to spot this is by asking questions. Any operator who is legitimate will be happy to answer any questions you may have about the company and its aircraft. Conversely, grey operators are often secretive about the nature of their flights and avoid being questioned about the specifics, especially when related to safety, legality and legitimacy.
A lot is done to improve air safety and prevent grey charter flights from gaining a foothold in society, but as long as there is an economic incentive for illegal operations to keep flying, grey charters may always remain a certain risk.
Luckily, organizations such as The Air Charter Association have been focussing on raising and maintaining standards of conduct in the air charter market, and to promote integrity and ethical business practices.
In the end, the best advice we can offer you is to work with a professional and reputable company, and only enter into business with an operator who is transparent and open about how they conduct their business.
At The Aviation Factory, we only work with fully licensed charter operators and airlines. For this, we can rely on our 22+ years of experience working with commercial operators around the world. We even regularly ask for a copy of the AOC when working with a new airline or operator, just to make 100% sure you are in professional, ethical and legal hands.
If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with our team anytime. We will be happy to provide you with, or find, all the answers you need for your next private flight!