JANUARY 31, 2001
As companies scramble to save on the cost of commercial travel, increasing numbers of business people are taking to the skies in corporate-owned or charter aircraft. But amid the growth, mystery surrounding the 1999 Learjet crash that killed golfer Payne Stewart is raising questions about the overall safety of private jets.
The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the flight crew's incapacitation following the loss of cabin pressure probably caused the accident. It has not figured out why depressurization occurred in the first place, because, unlike big airliners, the 25-year-old aircraft was not required to be fitted with a flight data recorder.
The business jet fleet in the United States has nearly doubled in the last decade, with some 7,000 of the small jets now flying either for hire from charter companies or as part of a corporation's own aircraft fleet. One reason for the increase is that business jet travel is no longer just for the CEO: An estimated 50 percent of passengers on business aircraft are now middle managers.
Federal regulations that govern large commercial airlines on everything from pilot training to aircraft safety systems don't always apply to the expanding business jet fleet.
The safety record of business jets is apparently roughly equal to -- or even better than -- the scheduled airlines. But more and more companies are engaging in "fractional ownership," chipping in to buy a piece of a business jet, a practice that often is cheaper than chartering an aircraft. These corporate-owned planes operate under less-stringent rules than do charter flights for hire.
Nevertheless, some point out that there is more to safety than government regulations. "Business aviation -- the use of jet airplanes for business travel -- adopts a very stringent culture of training, or maintenance," said Jack Olcott of the National Business Aviation Association.