The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a good time to think about those customers who aren’t actively pursuing a new certificate or fresh rating just now, but merely trying to maintain some degree of proficiency while also having some fun.
Road conditions and airline service being what they are, many whose travel plans don’t span continents will start thinking that renting an aircraft might take a lot of the stress out of that planned trip back home. Unfortunately, they’re thinking that during the season that provides the greatest challenges to general aviation travel in most of the country.
Short days and winter weather leave precious few hours of daytime VMC, while the icing risk that attends low temperatures make IFR flight a dicey proposition in the typical rental aircraft. The need for flexibility in one’s travel plans that characterizes light GA is perhaps greatest in the winter—while self-imposed deadlines to arrive in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or get back in time for work can be especially pernicious.
Operators of rental aircraft can’t do much about that kind of pressure, but there is one pressure they can take out of the equation. The terms of the rental agreement, whether minimum daily charges or scheduling conflicts with other customers, should never be the determining factor in a pilot’s assessment of flight conditions. It’s no safer to attempt the trip just because someone else has reserved the aircraft for 10 a.m. tomorrow, and it’s to the credit of the industry that this fact is pretty well universally acknowledged. We’re not aware of a single FBO or flight school whose policies are geared to do anything other than encourage their customers to wait out conditions that make them uncomfortable. Even so, renters don’t automatically absorb that message.
Although it didn’t happen in winter, one notable case in point occurred in 2010 just north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The 640-hour instrument-rated private pilot completed a rental checkout in a Piper Arrow, but a planned follow-on lesson to re-establish night currency had to be scrubbed for weather. For that reason, dispatch of the airplane carried the condition that he return it by sunset. On the day of his planned return flight, thunderstorms made that impossible. Rather than wait until morning, he phoned the operator to say that he’d be leaving 10 minutes after he’d been scheduled to arrive. Flying an unfamiliar airplane after dark while attempting to follow ATC vectors around storm cells in instrument conditions at low altitude, he lost control of the airplane and crashed. His two passengers died with him.
However sensible your weather policies are, they won’t help if your clients don’t absorb them. Without question, enlightened self-interest should take care of that, but equally unquestionably, it doesn’t always. We recognize that too much forgiveness could encourage abuse; nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with reminding your customers that getting the aircraft back on time isn’t as important as getting it back safely.
Uninjured renters and undamaged hardware are more important than a schedule that won’t be kept in any case if the flight ends in an accident. If no one has booked the aircraft for the four or six hours after its scheduled arrival, there’s no harm in letting the renter know that you won’t sweat a late return.
On the other hand, if the forecast for the trip back looks questionable or worse, the renter can hardly refuse to discuss flight planning with your chief instructor. If this conversation has either the effect of reminding the customer of the need for flexibility or of prompting reconsideration of the entire flight, the health of your fleet and the durability of your client base both stand to benefit.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.