What are Public Charters?
A public charter flight is a charter arranged by an indirect air carrier (IAC). The Public Charter Operator acts as an intermediary between a passenger (the ultimate purchaser/user of transportation) and the Direct Air Carrier (the actual aircraft operator).
The conduct of the public charter operator class of IACs is authorized and regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The primary regulation is 14 CFR part 380, hence the common names for these entities – Part 380s or Public Charter Operators.
The Public Charter Operator engages with a Direct Air Carrier for the charter of an aircraft. Individual seats on the flight may then be resold to the public by the Public Charter Operator in accordance with the DOT approved charter prospectus and regulatory requirements.
Regulations allow the Public Charter Operator to engage with any appropriately certificated air carrier to provide the actual air transportation. This includes on-demand and commuter carriers (14 CFR 135 operations) and airlines (14 CFR 121).
Roles of the DOT and FAA
The DOT grants economic authority to carriers and ensures compliance with consumer protection rules while the FAA is responsible for granting operating authority and provides safety oversight. The FAA does not regulate or oversee Public Charter Operators because they do not operate aircraft. Like Travel Agents and Air Charter Brokers (who are also subject to DOT oversight), Public Charter Operators engage in the sale of air transportation, but not the physical operation of aircraft.
What are the requirements to become a Public Charter Operator?
Part 380 has many regulatory provisions intended to inform and protect consumers. The operator is subject to rules regarding disclosures to passengers, contract requirements with the direct air carrier, and all passengers are provided with a contract for transportation. Funds are securely held and there are also requirements and limitations for any changes or cancellation to the planned trip. Documents, links to regulations and additional information on becoming a Public Charter Operator are available from the DOT Aviation Policy page regarding Public Charters at Public Charters | US Department of Transportation.
Are Public Charter flights really scheduled flights?
No, from the FAA perspective these flights are no different than other operations conducted under a charter contract. A charter flight generally is one where the entire capacity of the aircraft is hired and the departure and arrival airports as well as the flight departure times are negotiated between the air carrier and the charterer. In this case, the aircraft is hired by the Public Charter Operator (the charterer) who sets the operational parameters in its contract with the direct air carrier. The DOT Public Charter authority then grants the ability to resell seats on the flight, subject to the provisions of Part 380.
“Scheduled” flights are defined by the FAA as ones where the air carrier determines in advance the departure airport, departure time and destination airport. By definition (found at 14 CFR 110.2) public charter operations under part 380 are not scheduled flights.
The FAA defines (14 CFR 110.2) types of air carrier operations that are eligible to operate under part 135 rules – commuter and on-demand. In both cases scheduled flights (in airplanes) are limited to those conducted in other than turbojet powered airplanes, with a max payload of less than 7,500 pounds and with 9 or fewer passenger seats.
Part 135 commuter carriers are not limited in the number of scheduled flights they may conduct. Part 135 on-demand carriers may conduct scheduled flights between two city pairs with a frequency of less than five round trips per week between any given city pair. The number of city pairs is not restricted. Because part 380 operations are by definition not scheduled flights, the restrictions on scheduled flights are not applicable to public charter operations involving a part 135 operator.
In general, there are no frequency restrictions. Flights are an on-demand operation even though the 380 can resell seats on the flight individually to the public. Standard FAA airplane restrictions (i.e. up to 30 pax, 7500 lb payload for an on-demand operator) apply. However, conducting more than 4 round trips between a city pair per week will impact DOT economic authority requirements. In such cases, the frequency of the operations may require an operator to obtain commuter economic authority from the DOT.
A business holding FAA air carrier authority can also obtain Part 380 authority. There are no restrictions on the same company holding an air carrier certificate from the FAA and indirect air carrier authority from the DOT.
Are aircraft used in Public Charter operations subject to passenger seating or service frequency restrictions?
A part 135 on-demand operator with an airplane having 30 seats may perform flights for a part 380 operator. As explained above these are not scheduled flights regardless of any regularity or frequency in flight patterns. From the FAA operational perspective, part 380 flights are in fact chartered flights. The FAA regulatory view is focused on the entity that engages with a carrier for a given flight operation. In the instance of a part 380 public charter, the public charter operator charters an aircraft from an authorized air carrier, just as any other entity could charter a similar flight from that air carrier. That the public charter operator has obtained special approval from the DOT to re-sell the seats on that flight does not change the fact that the aircraft was engaged as an on-demand operation.
Are approvals of airports, routes and other elements applicable to airlines also required for Public Charters?
For the certificated carriers operating the flight for the Part 380 operator, the carrier must follow the FAA regulations applicable to the operation. In the case of an on-demand operator (Part 135) prior approval to operate at a specific airport is not generally required and therefore would not be required when conducting a Part 380 operation. On-demand carriers are not obligated to inform an intended airport of their operations. However, the Public Charter Operator is required to provide the DOT with detailed information on their planned flights. This information is available to the public for review.
What is the difference between the terms commuter and scheduled?
Regarding FAA regulations, “commuter” is a type of commercial air carrier while “scheduled” is a type of flight that may be performed by air carriers. Flag, Domestic, Foreign, Commuter, and On-demand air carriers may all, subject to operator-specific restrictions/regulations, conduct scheduled flights.
To complicate matters, “commuter” is also a type of economic authority issued by the DOT. An FAA part 135 commuter air carrier will generally also obtain DOT commuter authority. Most part 135 on-demand operators obtain DOT air taxi authority (14 CFR 298). Importantly, there are not rigid correlations between the type of FAA operational authority held and the DOT economic authority needed. There are reasons that a FAA on-demand operator may require DOT commuter authority or even a full fitness determination/certificate of public convenience and necessity (i.e. what the airlines have) depending on the type of aircraft they use and types of operations they intend to conduct.
What are the similarities and differences between Air Charter Brokers and Public Charter Operators?
There are many entities who engage in what we call charter brokering with the part 135 on-demand operators who do not fall under DOT 380 rules. If an entity wishes to act as an indirect air carrier and charter a flight (acting as a principal) and then resell the seats on those flights, then yes, the part 380 rules would generally apply to such an entity. Also, the part 380 rules apply to someone chartering flights with any direct air carrier, whether a 135 on-demand operator or a part 121 flag carrier.
Part 380 allows the public charter operator to charter an aircraft (and occasionally “charter” only a portion of the seats on an aircraft) and resell the seats on that pre-defined defined flight subject to the requirements of the part 380 rules.
Public charter operators are defined by the DOT as indirect air carriers – meaning they engage indirectly in air transportation but they do not operate aircraft. They engage with a direct air carrier for flights. Most part 380 operators engage in the full capacity of the chartered aircraft, although there are cases where a portion of the aircraft capacity is engaged by the public charter operator.
The part of the DOT regulations dealing with air charter brokers is located at 14 CFR 295.
One way to separate these is to consider the point of direct air carrier contract/engagement. In a part 380 charter, the public charter operator submits the prospectus to the DOT and engages in a contract with the direct air carrier for a specific flight (or flights). The seats are then offered for sale to the public and the public charter operator bears the risk of financial loss if they fail to sell all the seats or do not sell them for a desired amount. In contrast, the typical air charter broker (under 14 CFR 295 rules) does not engage with a carrier until they are contacted by a passenger/customer who is seeking an on-demand charter flight. The charter broker then goes and searches the market for a carrier who has an aircraft available for the proposed flight at an agreeable price.
Simply put, a part 380 already has an aircraft and flight arranged and is seeking passengers. In contrast, typical air charter brokers have passengers and are seeking a carrier to conduct the flight.
Can an airport sponsor restrict Public Charter flights at their facility?
Generally, no. Airport sponsors accepting federal funding agree to maintain availability of the facility on a non-discriminatory basis. The general rule is that if the direct air carrier is authorized to use the airport for operations that don’t involve public charter operations, then they may also do flights for Part 380s. There are very rare exceptions for specific airports that are named by statute as being able to limit or prohibit the operation of certain types of operations, which may include public charter operations.
Is this all new?
No. The DOT Part 380 regulations authorizing Public Charters (and the use of air taxi and commuter carriers as the contracted direct air carriers) have been in place for decades. FAA regulations related to the operation of public charter flights by on-demand carriers are also expressly authorized by long-standing regulations and supported by several legal interpretations.