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Flying charter? ask these six questions
We all have plenty of operators to choose from when we need to book a charter flight. I stay loyal to the ones that do the best overall job for me. I might not fly with them often, but when I need an airplane in their part of the country, they're the ones I call.
How have they gained my loyalty? Here are the questions I ask myself to evaluate charter operators and decide whether to continue flying with them.
1. Does the operator make me feel safe? We were about 45 minutes outside of Georgetown, Texas, flying home one December evening. The weather, unusual for central Texas, had deteriorated to what you'd expect from winter up north. The captain kept looking back through the cabin at something, and he sure seemed worried. My colleague asked me, "What's the pilot looking at?" I was afraid he was trying to see the wings to check for ice buildup, but I didn't know, and there was too much turbulence for me to go forward and ask him.
Whatever he was worried about, we could have landed earlier, rented a car and driven home. Or had dinner and waited for the weather to clear before finishing the flight. My point isn't whether or not I was safe; it's that I didn't feel safe. If ever an operator or crew does anything to make me worry about safety, that's the last trip we'll fly together.
Contrast that trip with one where I felt completely safe. Late one afternoon, I flew from Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio, to have dinner with clients; and I was scheduled to fly to Milwaukee later that evening. When I returned to the FBO after dinner, the captain was waiting for me.
"Mr. Ryan, we're going to start running into some turbulence just east of Chicago over the lake," he said. "We believe it's perfectly safe to make the trip, but it will get kind of bumpy the closer we get to Chicago and will stay like that all the way into Milwaukee.
"I'd like to suggest three options," the captain continued. "The first is to overnight here and go up early in the morning. The second is to take the flight and if you are the least bit uncomfortable along the way, we'll land, remain overnight and finish the flight in the morning. The third choice is to fly into Milwaukee this evening."
I asked the captain whether he felt any pressure at all from me or his company to go that evening. "None," he said. "And if I had any concerns, we wouldn't go."
I usually don't mind turbulence, so off we flew. Although it was bumpy, I wasn't the least bit worried because my captain had taken the time to give me a thorough briefing so I'd know what to expect.
2. Does the operator communicate with me? Let me tell you about an operator I stopped using after three trips. I was flying into Philadelphia one evening and wanted to land at Wings Field because it was only half a mile from my hotel. All my paperwork from the operator showed Wings. Imagine my surprise when we landed at Philadelphia Northeast. The captain told me dispatch had changed the destination before we took off because of deteriorating weather and that PNE was a much safer choice that evening than Wings.
Dispatch apparently hadn't told the charter coordinator who'd arranged my flight. The charter company president, who walked out to the airplane with me, hadn't bothered to mention it. And the captain's paperwork, which he showed to me, had PNE with no mention of Wings.
This was a classic example of everyone being focused on doing their own jobs but completely forgetting the customer. It also suggested to me that the employees didn't get along very well with one another. After all, when you respect your coworkers and like your company, you tend to go the extra mile and also watch out for the customer.
3. Do the ground arrangements work? I took a client on a barnstorming trip across Pennsylvania one day. This was his first charter trip, so everything was a new experience.
At our first stop, someone from the FBO was standing at the foot of the airstair. As we reached him, he handed me the keys to a car parked near the airplane and opened the car door. We got in and drove off. When we returned to the FBO, we reversed the process. At our next stop, we went through the same drill. When we landed a third time-a stop that had been tentative until about 90 minutes earlier-a sedan service was waiting for us.
I hadn't thought anything about any of this because my charter operator had all my rental car company membership numbers and credit card information, which let him pre-fill the contracts and arrange payment. I also had a national account with the sedan service.
But my client didn't know any of that. He thought this was phenomenal service and a terrific time saver, which it was. Because the scheduler did his job well, he made me look good and helped me to impress an important client.
4. Is the cabin in excellent shape? Have you ever had a cabin ceiling light fixture come off in your hand? Do you sometimes have to fight with the seats to make them slide, swivel or recline? What about tables that won't fold open or recess into their frames?
If you take enough charter flights, you shouldn't be surprised if this sort of thing happens. Disappointed maybe, but not surprised. I had all three things happen to me on the same aircraft one evening. I stopped using that operator. You can't help but wonder what else isn't being maintained when the passenger compartment has all those problems.
My favorite operators meticulously maintain their cabins. Some even have detailed inspection checklists that the charter schedulers or maintenance supervisors run through to be sure everything the passengers see, touch or use will be up to standards.
5. Are you comfortable having the operator fly your clients? The true test of a charter operator is whether I'm comfortable using it to fly my family or clients, especially if I'm not going along. I look for an operator whose staff knows how to make people feel welcome and at ease. This has a lot to do with the crew assigned to the flight, along with customer service by the schedulers or charter coordinators.
Your family may not have flown as often as you have, so they may not know as much as you about how everything works. Clients are even more challenging. If they have never flown privately, the operator has to walk a fine line, helping the passengers feel at ease and giving them plenty of information without making them feel self-conscious.
6. Does the operator stay in touch with me? One of my favorite operators is based in New England. He lets me know a few times a year when he has an empty leg flying over Texas. Once, it coincided with a trip I needed to make. That worked out nicely for both of us.
Another favorite operator, this one in Chicago, keeps me on her newsletter distribution list, even though I live in Texas. That's because she knows I occasionally need an operator out of Chicago for my hub-and-spoke trips.
I once flew four trips in two years with an operator who never followed up with so much as a phone call or postcard. I felt taken for granted and decided to try someone else on the field. That second operator periodically e-mails or calls me. I've been flying with him ever since.
A final note. You might be surprised that I've made no mention of price in this article. That's because my key reasons for picking a charter operator are more important than cost. Sure, I want a fair price that gives me consistent value for my investment. But if I had fun and everything worked, I usually feel I got my money's worth...and the operator will continue to get my business.