By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A one-time Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) aviation partner has been charged by the US authorities with operating an illegal charter service between this nation and Florida.
Robert 'Charles' Brady, owner of Beach Aviation, who in 2015 teamed with BTVI to launch the 'Bahamas Aviation Academy', was indicted just before Christmas on a 56-count charge sheet that included commanding numerous flights to Nassau, Abaco and North Eleuthera without the necessary pilot's license.
Brady's indictment yesterday prompted one Bahamian aviation operator to call for an intensified crackdown on illegal charter operators - both local and foreign - by the Government.
Captain Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas' president and chief executive, told Tribune Business that illegal charter flights were "a huge problem" in the Bahamian aviation market and represented "a serious safety issue".
He added that the Bahamas could ill-afford any accidents involving illegal charters, given its reliance on tourism as the country's key job creator and wealth driver.
Tribune Business, meanwhile, can reveal that BTVI 'partnered' with Mr Brady and Beach Aviation to create a training course for Bahamian pilots at the same time he was was flying to this nation without the necessary pilot's license.
The US government's indictment, obtained by this newspaper, lists numerous round-trips that Brady piloted between Florida and Nassau, Marsh Harbour and North Eleuthera during 2013-2015, where he did not possess "an airman's certificate authorising him to serve as pilot-in-command of a turbojet-powered Eclipse 500 aircraft".
The federal authorities alleged: "Robert Charles Brady never held a rating from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) as required authorising him to operate a turbojet-powered Eclipse 500. "Neither Robert Charles Brady nor Beach Aviation ever held an air carrier certificate issued by the FAA to operate any aircraft for compensation or hire as required."
But BTVI, in a March 2, 2015, press release, touted its "historic partnership" with Mr Brady and Beach Aviation for enabling Bahamian student pilots to be trained on FAA-approved courses while remaining in Nassau.
"While the theory and tests will take place at BTVI, the practical will be held at Beach Aviation in Florida with a required minimum flight time of 40 hours," the BTVI release said.
It even features a photo of a smiling Mr Brady with Dr Iva Dahl, BTVI's then-manager, and two men described as Beach Aviation's 'partners' - a Dr James Eddy and Bahamian Dr Kenneth Romer. Another Bahamian, Captain Fredrick McPhee, is also mentioned as a Beach Aviation 'partner' in the release.
There is nothing to suggest either Bahamian has done anything wrong, or knew of Mr Brady and Beach Aviation's alleged violations of US aviation law.
Dr Romer was thus quoted in the BTVI release: "The partnership between Beach Aviation and BTVI ensures an opportunity for Bahamians and members of the Caribbean community to train for a career in a high demand and high paying field in the Bahamas.
"The students will also benefit by learning from professional pilots and current jet captains who share real-world knowledge and experiences with them."
It is unclear whether the Bahamas Aviation Academy ever took off, given that us has never seemingly come to prominence since. However, the release announcing its creation and the Brady/Beach Aviation tie-up remains in the 'press release' section on BTVI's website.
BTVI's president, Dr Robert Robertson, could not be contacted for comment as the phone repeatedly 'rang out' when the institution was called. While the 'partnership' with Brady/Beach Aviation was seemingly agreed before his appointment, the US charges are likely to be something of an embarrassment for BTVI and raise questions about the quality of its due diligence.
Captain Butler, meanwhile, questioned whether the Bahamas' newly-created Civil Aviation Authority has both the personnel, financing and resources to clamp down on illegal charter operations being run by both local and foreign actors.
"It's a huge problem," he told Tribune Business. "I think the major places where you find this happening are Abaco, Exuma, Eleuthera and Bimini; this is where you find it in a big way. There is a demand in these areas, and people are being hooked up.
"It's a serious indictment on us. There is the safety thing because they are not licensed, there is no oversight of them, so you don't know if the pilots are properly certified and planes properly maintained. It's a serious safety issue for the travelling public."
The Sky Bahamas chief added that the lack of regular, scheduled airlift to some Family Islands was also creating a vacuum that illegal charter operators are all too willing to fill.
The significant market share obtained by illegal charter operators creates problems for legitimate fliers such as himself, Captain Butler explained, as they were able to undercut him on cost by not paying any of the taxes and licensing/regulatory fees the likes of Sky Bahamas must grapple with.
"They're charging the same fees we do, and we have the expense of training the pilots, paying VAT and airport facility charges, which are a big kicker to everybody right now," Captain Butler said. "We are paying NIB, medical insurance, licensing for the pilots and aircraft, and every six months they have to go to training.
"It's hurt my business significantly; big time. I've been looking at this and complaining about it. I've spoken to the Chamber of Commerce and Nassau Airport Development Company, and have spoken to and written to Civil Aviation about it. It is still continuing because we are feeling the pressure."
Pointing out that the Government had invested capital and resources in transforming Civil Aviation from a department to an authority, Captain Butler added: "Now the rules and regulations must be implemented across the board without fear or favour.
"They're required to have their people fly out to the islands, go out and do inspections. I'm hearing more and more that matters are being referred to the Attorney General's Office. The Attorney General's Office needs an aviation department to go out and prosecute these people."
Captain Butler said convictions, and associated financial penalties, were the best deterrent to illegal charter operations and unlicensed pilots. However, he expressed concern that tourism and aviation were under one ministry, suggesting that the need to promote airlift could conflict with the sector's regulation.