Vanity Fair: The Dangers of Flying Rich

The very rich fly differently than you and me, and not just in terms of coach versus first class. They have helicopters and private jets to zip around the globe in privacy and comfort. But top-drawer travel budgets don’t necessarily afford anyone an extra measure of safety. In fact, just the opposite: Private air travel can come with risks that commercial passengers never take on.

Why? Because the rules are looser for the privileged—and when it comes to safety, that’s not to their advantage. Whereas the commercial airliners that ordinary schlubs are consigned to must conform to the most stringent regulations—what the FAA calls “Part 121”—chartered aircraft fall under a more lax set of rules called “Part 135,” and sometimes an even less strict set, “Part 91,” that covers noncommercial flying, such as when aircraft owners pilot the plane themselves. (The word part refers to the fact that the rules are organized into sections, or parts, of the government’s Code of Federal Regulations.)

The consequences of the different safety standards can be seen in accident statistics. According to data compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board, in 2018 there were six fatal Part 135 crashes resulting in 12 deaths, versus just one Part 121 accident resulting in a single death. This, despite the fact that nearly five times as many hours were flown under Part 121 as under Part 135.

In most years the difference is even starker. Between 2010 and 2017, not a single airline passenger died—but the Part 135 death toll averaged 22 people per year.

Among the prominent names who have died while flying private is pro golfer Payne Stewart, who was flying in a Learjet in 1999 when it accidentally depressurized and eventually crashed, killing everyone aboard. Another is the R&B star Aaliyah, who died in a twin-engine Cessna that went down shortly after takeoff from the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. In 2004, 10 people died when a Beechcraft Super King Air primarily carrying Hendrick Motorsports executives and family members went down in Virginia. In 2010, Alaskan senator Ted Stevens died in a de Havilland Otter when it crashed en route to a remote fishing lodge. And last summer coal billionaire Chris Cline and his daughter were killed along with five others when their helicopter crashed near Cline’s private archipelago in the Bahamas.

Underlying the disproportionate risk is a fundamental tenet of aircraft regulation: the smaller the aircraft, the less scrutiny. At one end of the spectrum, a small homemade plane that weighs less than 254 pounds and carries only a single pilot can fly with almost no rules at all. At the other end, a plane in which hundreds of people might entrust their lives will get microscopic scrutiny. Part 135 aircraft, which carry no more than 30 passenger seats, are as a consequence somewhat less tightly regulated than airliners. Part 135 pilots need to undergo a proficiency check only every 12 months, for instance, compared to every 6 months for Part 121 pilots. And while airline pilots can’t fly past the age of 65 (which was raised from age 60 in 2007 due to an impending shortage of commercial pilots), there is no age restriction under Part 135. Looser oversight leaves more room for mishap.

Then there’s the ability of the flight crew. Being a captain for a major airline is the most prestigious piloting job in aviation. It pays the best and attracts the top talent. Companies that fly private jets, in contrast, are often seen as a stepping stone up into the big leagues—or a step down for a pilot who’s aged out of big iron. To be clear, most Part 135 flight crew members are skilled professionals, capable of doing their jobs safely day in and day out. But if there are oddballs rattling around—like the pilot in Aaliyah’s crash, who had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his system and wasn’t even authorized to fly the plane that he crashed—they’re perhaps more likely to turn up in Part 135. (Aaliyah’s family sued over the fact that the plane was overloaded and settled out of court; other suits were brought as well regarding the crash.)

VIP passengers, meanwhile, can present a risk factor of their own. Pilots are generally result-oriented people. They want to get the mission done. Although there is no indication that this was a factor in Bryant’s flight, the urge can be strong to forge onward even when safety margins are deteriorating. In aviation there’s a term for it: “get-there-itis.” It’s all the more powerful when the customer in the back is someone whose itinerary is the sole reason for the flight in the first place. In 2001 a Gulfstream III business jet, en route from Los Angeles, crashed while trying to land in Aspen, Colorado, at night during snowfall. Investigators later discovered that the customer who arranged the charter was hosting a party that night and became “irate” at the suggestion that the plane might have to divert to another airport, which was an issue because, as the pilot had reported back to his employer, “the customer spent a substantial amount of money on dinner.” All 18 people aboard were killed.

Though the NTSB has only started working on the Kobe Bryant crash, there’s no question that his pilot took on additional risk in flying on a morning with a low overcast and dense fog. Whether that risk ultimately contributed to the crash remains to be determined, however. Conditions were bad enough that the Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its own helicopter fleet, but Bryant’s pilot had obtained permission to fly under conditions of reduced visibility. The pilot was properly certified and also a flight instructor. “Supercautious, supersmart,” one of his colleagues told the New York Times. “I can’t see him making this kind of mistake.”

Though travelers in private aircraft may face a relatively high degree of risk, it’s important to emphasize the word relative. If 20 people die each year flying Part 135, that’s a minuscule number considering the millions of flight hours accomplished without incident. And it’s nothing compared to the number of people who die in motor vehicle accidents—more than 35,000 in 2015 alone.

This article ran in Vanity Fair on January 29, 2020.

4 thoughts on “Vanity Fair: The Dangers of Flying Rich”

  1. Hi Jeff, thought you might be interested in this: & “Wreckage from the doomed Korean Air Flight 858 may have been found in the Andaman Sea near Myanmar. Reports have emerged of a South Korean television crew spotting a wing-shaped object and part of a fuselage on the seabed using 3D sonar.” What comes to mind is the story of a woman claiming to see a plane from a passenger jet window in that area – doubt there is any connection since it is still 170 feet down, but this is a relatively shallow depth compared to the areas searched for MH370.

  2. I’ve also been looking at this story and there hasn’t been any follow up confirming it was or wasn’t plane wreckage, I thought news like this would have made headlines. (MH370?)

  3. Take a look at 14 CFR 135.297. FAR 135 pilots take the equivalent of an ATP checkride every 6 months. I could go on, but leaving it at that for now.

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