The New Charter Standard

The Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF) was founded in 2007 as an offshoot of the National Air Transportation Association, which until recently was overseeing its operation. This summer ACSF hired its first full-time executive director, Bryan Burns, to direct and grow its membership, which is made up of Part 135 charter/aircraft management firms and Part 91, Subpart K fractionals, along with associated companies. The foundation’s mission is to raise the bar regarding safety and has incorporated a formal audit program by which companies can be certified. A key goal, says Burns, is to offer customers a vetting process for finding a safe charter flight. AIRPORT BUSINESS recently visited with Burns on his new role, and the impact ACSF is having.

Prior to joining ACSF, Burns spent some 28 years managing at FBOs, among them Signature Flight Support; Jackson Hole Aviation; Midcoast Aviation; and Miami Aviation Corporation. He holds a B.S. in Air Commerce/Transportation Technology from the Florida Institute of Technology. Following are edited excerpts of our interview ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: Some key NATA members, like Charlie Priester and Jim Christiansen, were involved in the ACSF start-up. What did they seek to achieve?

Burns: They wanted to pursue a couple of goals: Develop a robust, consistent audit standard that the public could rely on; and they wanted to help charter operators adopt a safety management system.

The ultimate goal might be operators listing themselves on a registry; we now have about 15 operators listed on the registry. They have gone through the safety audit program. The intent was to get them listed so users and clients can simply rely on that Air Charter Safety Foundation certification to vet the operator. It is a certification that customers can use.

AB: And ACSF is now separate from NATA?

Burns: ACSF is a stand-alone foundation. When it comes to research, education, and that element of what we do for charter operators and managed aircraft, we look at what FlightSafety Foundation has done for airlines; ACSF is trying to emphasize the Part 135 and Part 91-K operators.

We coordinate the logistics; we set up the schedule. There’s a pre-checklist. Most of the work involved in the audit is actually done prior to the auditors stepping onsite. It could be a couple of months in preparation prior to the audit.

AB: Who actually does the audits?

Burns: We contract auditing out to several different companies -- Wyvern; R Dixon Speas; and the like. We have six to eight auditors that we contract with.

AB: What type of fees can a new member expect?

Burns: It varies, depending on the size of the fleet. For most entry level operators, it is a three-day audit; $9,100. It goes up to a five-day audit, with 50-plus airplanes -— $13,120.

We have an agreement with Executive Jet Management regarding accepting our standards. If you want to fly on behalf of EJM they are putting every one of those operators through the ACSF audit program. It’s something that they came on board with over a year ago. EJM picks up the tab.

AB: As a member, do I pick the firm that does the audit?

Burns: We’ll give you options; suggestions. You have that choice.

AB: What might an operator expect to come out of a typical audit?

Burns: One thing we’ve discovered is management involvement, or lack of involvement, has an impact. What seems to surface is the director of operations has to realize that this is an across the board compliance. It’s not just checking the boxes and thinking you’re going to be certified. This is about going into every component of the business, from cleaning airplanes to the director of aviation -- to ensure they’re doing what they say they’re doing. The real measuring stick is … is it being implemented?

That’s what we’ve discovered being inconsistent from one operator to another. We’ve also discovered that for those who have been successful in completing it, they say they are a better company because of it. It brings peace of mind to the safety component.

We give the opportunity to take 120 days for corrective action to be fulfilled. They’re going to be discovered; nobody comes away clean, and that’s the intent of the audit.

AB: One thing NATA has taken the lead on is safety management systems (SMS) training. How does that fit with ACSF?

Burns: That’s another component. We just spent an entire workshop with SevenBar in Dallas; 14 of their employees were in this session. We spent the day outlining expectations. Why this is important? Who should be involved? The president to the line pilots were involved; the entire staff. It gave all the guys an opportunity to question, challenge — to get a better understanding of their roles and how it affects their co-workers.

AB: How does this fit with FAA’s ongoing effort to implement official guidance for SMS?

Burns: We’re creating best practices. We know it’s coming; we’ve just taken the lead in putting that information together and capturing this data. It took a year of research and it was compiled with best practices. We’ve been working with the FAA to continue to share with them what we’re doing. They’re very supportive of what they say is a very strong program. They’re looking at our program as a potential guide for what may be out in the fall.

AB: How much exposure did you have to SMS prior to this position?

Burns: Signature has an SMS program, which is very thorough and very comprehensive. Signature is on the leading edge of safety and quality control in the FBO industry. I’m a firm believer that they do that right. They’re very thorough; have their own internal auditors. It is incredibly comprehensive, from OSHA to EPA to fuel quality control to facilities. So having been on the receiving end of that as a general manager, I can appreciate the flipside of being the one administering it. It’s a management tool to run your business more efficiently, more effectively, and safely.

AB: Besides growing membership, what do you see as other opportunities for the foundation?

Burns: A future project, in which I’m a full believer, is to establish an aviation safety action plan (ASAP), which is a voluntary employee program in which an employee voluntarily reports safety information that may be critical to identifying potential precursors to accidents.

There’s a provision, supported by FAA, that seeks to address the safety issues through corrective action versus punishment or discipline. Employees are protected from retribution.

There’s the Medallion Foundation in Alaska that has had a program for about seven years and it’s been very effective. Jim Christiansen will swear by it, based on his experience when he was running NetJets. It disclosed safety issues that may have not necessarily been brought to management’s attention.

We’re actively looking, and FAA supports … to create an ASAP program.

AB: How would you describe FAA’s overall opinion of ACSF and its activities?

Burns: I’ve met with Flights Standards and they are big supporters of this program. We’re trying to get it endorsed. We have disclosed and shared information and have a great relationship.

One of my goals is to get the message out to our audience. People aren’t familiar with the foundation; they are more familiar with the audit standards and SMS.

AB: Looking at recent economic history, it seems the foundation got started during a rough period. What are you hearing from charter operators regarding activity?

Burns: It’s on an uptick. People are seeing improvement. I haven’t stumbled on anyone who says it’s worse than a year ago. That’s a great thing.