FAA Targets Weathervane Aviation Services – Proposes $1 Million Penalty Against Alleged Illegal Charter Operator

N402BK – Courtesy FlightAware

On January 25, 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  issued a news release stating that the agency has proposed a $1,001,000 civil penalty against Weathervane Aviation Services. The Feds allege the company operated an illegal charter and used unqualified pilots. 

Legal action against Weathervane is part of a larger effort to crackdown on illegal charter operations. Weathervane has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s enforcement letter. However, the press release tells us that this was not the FAA’s first contact with Weathervane. 

Allegedly, all but 52 of the 1,400 illegal flights occurred after the FAA notified Weathervane president Richard Araujo that he must get an air-carrier certificate to conduct his operations. The exact date this prior notification was sent is unknown. The FAA alleges Weathervane’s operations were careless or reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another. 

The timeline of the alleged “illegally operating charter” LLC  is interesting – and part of a complex structuring of LLCs and one long-established Massachusetts corporation. A search of the Weathervane Aviation Services, LLC on the Massachusetts Secretary of State website shows that Weathervane was organized in Massachusetts on April 23, 2012. It was involuntarily dissolved by court order or the Secretary of State on June 30, 2017, and revived on April 11, 2018. It is unclear what the purpose of the LLC was prior to the acquisition of the aircraft in 2016. 

New Bedford to Nantucket Flights Ran Between May 9, 2016 to August 31, 2018 

According to the FAA news release, approximately 1,400 illegal flights were operated between May 9, 2016, and August 31, 2018. The planes involved in the alleged ops were twin-engine Cessna 402C aircraft. Both were acquired in 2016 from defunct Island Airlines.

It is not revealed in the FAA news release if Weathervane was doing business as another name. Perhaps Island Shuttle, Inc. ? This business name is specifically mentioned in a Cape Cod Times article published February 7, 2017. The 2017 article isn’t even about Araujo, but mentions – and establishes –  his efforts in the conclusion. 

N402BK and N406BK

One of the aircraft involved in the allegedly illegal op appears to be N402BK, a 1978 Cessna 402C. This aircraft was registered to Weathervane Aviation Services LLC in 2016, before being transferred to N402BK LLC. Photos of the aircraft show it previously branded as Island Airlines, which ceased operations on December 11, 2015 after a storied run.  The other aircraft registered to Weathervane Aviation Services is N406BK, which was also later registered to a tail number named LLC. Both LLCs were organized in April 2018, and registered to a Nantucket address, with a different resident agent than Weathervane Aviation Services, LLC. 

However a search for Island Shuttle, Inc. establishes a definitive link between the agent for the aircraft tail LLCs, and Araujo of Weathervane. Secretary of State filings reveal Araujo became registered agent on January 25, 2016. In 2019, Richard Arajuo appointed Eric Goddard (registered agent of the two tail number LLCs) as registered agent of Island Shuttle, Inc. Island Shuttle incorporated on April 16, 1987. We can assume Arajuo acquired it at some point around when he became the registered agent.

Looking back in time at relevant news events involving the operation, that 2017 article in the Cape Cod Times stated that Richard Araujo, at the time, the reported owner of Noreast Aviation, “secured at least some of the Cessna 402s from Island Airlines.” The article went on to say that Araujo had “applied for a Federal Aviation Administration license in hopes of bringing a new commuter air service to the route.” 

If the information in the 2021 FAA press release and the 2017 Cape Cod Times article are both accurate, illegal flights were already operating when the application was submitted. 

May 2020 Guidance to Pilots

The Feds take illegal charter ops very seriously. Back in May 2020, they issued an Informational Letter to Pilots which warned against being involved in any operation that resembled an Uber or Lyft. Specifically, the Feds stated “The FAA recognizes that there is a trend in the industry towards using computer and cell phone applications to facilitate air transportation by connecting potential passengers to aircraft owners and pilots willing to provide professional services.” 

The 2020 warning letter went on to explain the requirements for pilots to have a commercial or ATP license, and be employed by a certificate holder with operational control of the flight. The FAA maintains that illegal charter ops “continue to be a problem nationwide, putting the flying public in danger, diluting safety in the national airspace system, and undercutting the business of legitimate operators.”

In July of last year, Robb Report spotlighted the rise in fake and illegal charters, as the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a new group of private flyers.  Private charter operators, whether piston airplanes, turboprops, or private jets, are subject to very stringent requirements for pilot hiring and experience, as well as aircraft inspections.  We can reasonably expect more news on actions against illegal charter operations – and guidance for pilots –  this year. 

It does not appear that Weathervane’s 402s have flown in some time. The 402 was well suited for the mission, as a common aircraft choice for similar island hops. Manufacturer Cessna sold about 1,900 402s from 1966 to 1985. The aircraft has been used by militaries around the world, including Barbados, Mexico, Colombia, Indonesia, and Portugal. As of 2019, Cape Air had a fleet of about 88 Cessna 402s. R&B singer Aaliyah tragically died in a Cessna 402 crash in the Bahamas on August 25, 2001.

Did you fly on one of the Weathervane flights? Would love to hear experiences in the comments.

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