In October 2014, Avinode sold safety audit specialist, Wyvern, to Nexus for an undisclosed sum. The company had been acquired by Avinode as a by-product of its acquisition in 2010 of rival online charter information provider, Charter X. At the time of the sale Wyvern’s CEO, Art Dawley, had been in his post for around a year. While Wyvern did well enough under Avinode’s stewardship, the transformation of the company under Nexus has been little short of spectacular.
“In the space of a year we have doubled our head count, gone from two offices to nine around the world, and had our marketing budget tripled. I expect to see a very significant improvement in our results from this in terms of our growth through 2016,” Dawley says.
Q: How would you describe Wyvern’s core mission?
A: Wyvern’s core mission is to provide end users of aircraft charter services with the most up-to-date tools, resources and data they need to assess the risk they run when chartering aircraft or helicopters. Often when people or companies charter, they tend to fix on price as the important factor. What is far more important is the safety, maintenance and compliance record of the company operating the aircraft they are thinking of chartering. Actually, if you are just sending your staff off to foreign countries on the cheapest charter you can find, that can come home to roost in a very bad way if something goes wrong. Our audit provides prospective users with a high level of reassurance and helps them to meet their duty of care that the law places on them. As such it is also a strong marketing plus for the operators we audit.
In addition, Wyvern looks to provide comprehensive safety management solutions to corporate and charter flight departments. For this we use a ‘Safety-as-a-Service’ platform which provides top-to-bottom management of company safety processes and systems.
Q: What exactly does the fact that an operator has passed a Wyvern audit give to charter customers?
A: A Wyvern audit confirms whether that charter company has embraced safety management as a core business practice. In addition, the operator must provide evidence that industry best practices have not only been documented but effectively implemented. Lack of implementation is probably the biggest generator of non-conformities in our audit process. There is lots of ‘window dressing’ in the marketplace but demonstrating full commitment to safety management, unfortunately, is the exception, not the norm. This is why the Wingman preferred vendor pool of charter operators is much smaller than our competitors’. It is a standard that is much more difficult to achieve.
Q: Shouldn’t potential customers be able to assume that operators are safe based on government compliance requirements?
A: You need to be aware that FAA compliance is not the highest bar, as it were. It is the minimum level of compliance placed on an operator. To date it does not even mandate implementation of safety management systems (SMS) as a regulatory requirement. Our requirements are almost entirely based on commitment to effective safety management through a comprehensive and well-documented SMS that has also been proven to be fully embraced throughout the organisation.
Q: What do you say to the fact that passengers do not audit an airline every time they buy a ticket? A lot is taken on trust.
A: That is true, but it is true because there is no audit for commercial airlines out there in the public domain. If the ability existed to vet mission-specific flights by assessing the pilots, aircraft and organisation, as Wyvern does with its PASS report, I would guess business travelers would embrace that as a standard operating procedure. I know I would!
Q: What is involved in a Wyvern audit?
A: Generally speaking the Wyvern audit is typically a three-day assessment conducted by a two-man team that have subject matter expertise in flight operations and aircraft maintenance. The audit itself begins at 9:00AM the first day with an inbrief meeting that is attended by organisational post holders and upper level management. Expectations for the conduct of the audit are discussed by the Wyvern audit team and agreement is reached on how the process will be conducted and with whom. All three days are typically 9:00AM to 5:00PM, leaving adequate time at the end of the third day to discuss observed findings and non-conformities against the Wingman benchmark. The organisation is given a documented list of those non-conformities along with guidance on how remedial action should be conducted.
Q: You’ve said that a Wyvern audit is a “living audit” rather than just “a snapshot in time”.
A: The Wyvern audit requires an operator to continually provide current and verifiable data on pilot experience, aircraft maintenance status, insurance levels and FAA documentation. In addition, we require that Wyvern be notified within 48 hours in the event of any incident or accident of an aircraft, or when an investigation or enforcement action has been initiated by the aviation authorities of that country. In the US this information is publicly accessible through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Wyvern has expertise in gathering that type of information on a very timely basis. In other words, if these situations aren’t reported we will discover them. We have significant challenges in verifying data in certain other regions but our Support Team is pretty good at vetting that data.
Q: What do you mean by that and why is it important? Why isn’t it enough that an operator is IS-BAO-compliant (IS-BAO is the International Standard for Business Aircraft)?
A: Although meeting the IS-BAO benchmark signals a higher commitment to safe operating practices, it does not require specific information about the organisation – which Wyvern requires to provide flight-specific information generated for its customers with its Pilot and Aircraft Safety Survey (PASS Report).
Q: Is the current regulatory environment in the main US and European jurisdictions satisfactory?
A: Yes, both the FAA and EASA have a comprehensive oversight and accountability structure. Additional resources to provide more proactive guidance from inspectors towards safety and industry best practices in lieu of what many might consider unnecessary and intrusive inspection activities would be most welcomed, I’m sure. Better training for inspectors in both authorities (FAA and EASA) in the field of safety management would be a great first step.
Q: Should charter customers be more concerned about the safety of operations in the so-called emerging markets of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East?
A: Yes they should. Generally speaking, operators in emerging markets pose more risk as a result of many things. Lack of effective oversight from authorities, lack of effective training, little accountability structure and other risks abound. That being said there are several examples that I can think of where one has a smattering of world-class operators in these regions.
Q: Is regulation and safety compliance adequate in those parts of the world?
A: Much of the regulatory structure in these countries has been developed from ICAO Annex 6 guidance, with much of the subject matter pulled from FAA, UK, EASA and Canadian guidelines. Safety compliance is much more difficult to assess from our viewpoint because, although possibly well resourced, many regions and their operators continue to suffer from a lack of experienced pilots, mechanics and support network.
Q: Are you seeing changes in the sort of requirements that major corporations now have when it comes to choosing a charter provider, such as minimum insurance levels and minimum experience levels for pilots?
A: Most of our corporate clients have experienced flight department and risk managers that turn to Wyvern to provide safety and risk assessment data. We in turn provide them with effective tools to evaluate third party operators that are used when outsourcing charter. We count several Fortune 100 companies that rely on us for that information.
Q: How can customers be sure that Wyvern’s audit process is completely independent?
A: Wyvern’s audit process is benchmarked against the IS-BAO standards and recommended practices. Most of our operators elect to certify with IS-BAO in addition to our own independent certification of operators benchmarked against the Wyvern Standard. This has additional requirements beyond the IS-BAO standard. However, the quality assurance and subsequent approval for IS-BAO comes directly from the IBAC organisation, not Wyvern.
Q: What sort of fail-rate do you have, i.e. how many operators do not meet your standards at first and have to be re-audited?
A: Most operators that subscribe to the Wyvern audit have a reasonable expectation that they will pass the audit. The standards are published on our website and benchmarked primarily against IS-BAO with very comprehensive and measureable commitment to safety management. Our Wingman pool of preferred and certified vendors is not as large as other competitors’ because it is much more challenging. This is the reason we count top Fortune 100 companies, US government contractors and multi-national institutions as our top clients. They know they can rely on the quality and safe operating practices of our Wingman pool of preferred air charter vendors.
Q: How much of a problem is illegal charter in the so-called grey market? What sort of risks are customers taking when they fly with such operators? For that matter, just how risky is it to fly with an operator that has not been audited by Wyvern or another recognised auditor?
A: There are many high-quality operators that have not been audited by Wyvern or IS-BAO qualified. The question any risk manager needs to ask when assessing a charter operator is whether they have exhausted all reasonable resources available to define the lowest level of acceptable risk for the end users they represent. If an operator has not been audited by Wyvern and has not provided current and verifiable data on its operation, pilots, mechanics, etc, the question then becomes, “Have all reasonable avenues to mitigate risk to its lowest level of acceptance been accomplished?” We strongly feel that if you don’t have the best safety intelligence data in the industry that allows the end user to assess the operator, its pilots and aircraft, then the “reasonable avenues to mitigate risk” have not been utilised.
Q: Several companies are now offering the prospect of direct online booking of charter flights (i.e. without a broker being involved). Does this raise concerns as to how customers can be sure they are booking with a safe operator?
A: We are well aware of the proliferation of these online booking companies. None are our customers and unless they have access to the information we generate in our program, they have no way of confirming any information, particularly that of a Wyvern Wingman.
Q: Is there a danger that customers may be naïve or ill-informed about who they are booking a flight with?
A: Of course there is. You generally don’t hear about many of them unless a high-profile person or group has been involved. A quick Google search would highlight many high-profile worst case circumstances.
Q: Is it better to have a broker involved in the transaction?
A: If that broker has proven their commitment to working with operators that have a proven track record through audit processes then the answer is that they can be a very valuable resource. Any end user should ensure that the broker they are considering should have several years of experience in the industry and that has also made the commitment to safety the core mission of what they provide their customers. Unfortunately for many in the industry this is not the case.
Q: What trends do you see in the charter market?
A: One of the trends that has greatly affected the market from our standpoint is the consolidation of small operators into much larger entities. With greater economies of scale comes a much greater need to provide effective oversight of larger fleets. In many cases, larger operators have several outstations or satellite facilities, and providing that oversight without compromising safety is a primary concern of ours.
Q: How healthy is the market and what do you see unfolding in the coming year or so?
A: We see the charter market as one with many challenges ahead. As several CAAs (civil aviation authorities) across the globe begin to mandate greater commitment to safety, training and quality management it will come at a cost. Identifying those operators that don’t compromise in these areas will be our goal. With significantly more resources provided by our new ownership group to find these operators we expect the Wingman pool to grow – but there will be absolutely no compromise in what the Wingman Standard continues to require. This has always been the core mission to our Fortune 100 clientele and other end users that expect this of Wyvern.
Q: What changes would you like to see in the charter sector and how might this change happen?
A: I would like to see a global standard that allows for standardisation of aviation regulations across the globe. In many countries only one regulatory standard exists for operators, making no distinction between private and commercial operators. Obviously many challenges exist with that concept but if all operators were expected to comply under the same set of regulatory guidelines it would allow for greater focus on safety and quality issues.
Q: Tell us how you are developing your business and services to ensure that they remain valuable to your clients.
A: Wyvern long ago recognised the need to evolve its core safety surveillance data products and services. Providing end users all important information about all relevant aspects of a Wingman charter flight is our goal. To date we have the industry’s most respected data products and services, but we expect to take this to a whole new level. We are committed to developing a new data platform that will be unveiled in the coming year and will revolutionise the way the risk around charter flights is assessed. The goal of providing the information on a real-time basis and across all mobile platforms will allow any user easy access to this information.
In addition to evolving our data platform we have developed a ‘Safety as a Service’ concept that allows organisations, particularly those that have limited resources, to outsource certain safety training and reporting activities to us. This allows for daily and comprehensive management of safety tasks that are part of the company SMS, which in turn allows flight department personnel to better focus on safe operating practices