Kobe Bryant helicopter firm, Private Jet charter operator fined in April for illegal flights, gain CARES Act funding

illegal charter.

By Doug Gollan, May 18, 2020

Island Express Helicopters and Jem Air Holdings received $603,838 and $158,775, respectively, from the Treasury Department

Island Express Helicopters, the operator of the charter S-76 helicopter flight that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant and eight others, including the pilot, on Jan. 26, 2020, received $603,838 in funding as part of the CARES Act, according to a list published over the weekend by the Department of the Treasury.

Also receiving funding was Jem Air Holdings, LLC, which on April 17th of this year was accused by the Federal Aviation Administration of using unqualified pilots to conduct charter flights. The Raleigh, North Carolina-based private jet operator received $158,775 in Covid-19 support.

At the time, the FAA alleged, “Jem used three unqualified pilots to fly as second-in-command on 18 flights between April 25, 2019, and May 19, 2019.”

It went on to state, “The agency alleges these pilots had not undergone required annual flight-competency checks and written or oral knowledge tests.”

In proposing a $220,000 civil penalty, the FAA alleged: “Each flight operated by Jem Air with unqualified crewmembers was careless or reckless so as to endanger lives or property.”

A notice on the Jem website responded, “On April 17, 2020, only 3-days following receipt of the letter, JEM Air’s attorney responded to the FAA and requested a meeting to defend the factually baseless allegations.”

On April 17th, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a press release that it was proposing a $220,000 fine for illegal charter flights by Jem Air Holdings, LLC

It continued, “On the same day, and prior to expiration of the 30 day time period afforded to respond to the allegations, the FAA issued a press release disclosing the allegations and proposed civil penalty against JEM Air, which are unsupported by fact and law.”

The company, also said, “All of the flights referenced in the civil penalty letter were conducted in an aircraft that was authorized by the FAA to be operated with an autopilot system ‘in lieu of a required second-in-command’ pilot.”


It went on, “Therefore, the facts will establish that during the flights, JEM Air took proper actions to implement a higher safety standard than required by the regulations. As a result, JEM Air will prove that it was in full compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations, and that no flights were ever operated in a ‘careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.’”

The notice concluded, “To the contrary, the safety of our passengers and fellow company members on every flight are our number one priority in every decision we make!”

According to Amstat, the company holds certificates for a King Air 350 and two Citation CJ2s.

An analysis by Tuvoli shows while there are 573 Part 135 operators in the U.S. with at least one business jet available for charter, 71% have five or fewer jets in their fleet.

Argus and Wyvern Ratings

Jem is part of the ratings services provided by both Argus and Wyvern.

According to the Argus website, Jem holds a Gold rating, the lowest level of certification. To be Gold requires an operating certificate for a minimum of one year, at least one turbine aircraft on the certificate, an in-depth historical safety analysis, pilot background check, and aircraft operational control validation.

Jem is also Wyvern Registered. According to Wyvern, registered operators, its lowest level “maintain regulatory compliance information related to the operator, aircraft, and pilots…that is accessible to Wyvern members to consider when selecting air charter services.”

However, the Boston-based company notes, “Registered with Wyvern operators do not validate their safety performance via a Wyvern aviation safety audit. Registered with Wyvern does not constitute a safety certification nor is it intended to imply an endorsement of an operator’s commitment to best practices in business aviation.”

Kobe Bryant Crash Lawsuits Filed

Last month, family members of four of the eight victims in the Kobe Bryant crash joined his widow, Vanessa Bryant, in filing suit against the helicopter operator. Island Express had three previous accidents prior to the deadly January crash, according to reports.

Previously, Private Jet Card Comparisons revealed Delux Public Charter, LLC, which flies semi-private flights under the JSX brand, received $8.96 million in CARES Act COVID-19 relief funds.

A related company, JetSuite, which offered one-demand private jet charters and jet cards, grounded its fleet and furloughed nearly all of its 100 employees before filing for Chapter 11 protection last month. At the time, its membership customers had $50 million in unused flight credits.

Who is eligible for CARES Act money?

The Payroll Support Program provides payroll funding to passenger air carriers, cargo air carriers, and certain contractors for the continuation of payment of employee wages, salaries, and benefits.

A total of up to $25 billion is available for passenger air carriers; $4 billion for cargo air carriers; and $3 billion for contractors.

The amount to be received is based on its payroll expenses from April 2019 through September 2019, subject to proration.

Funds must exclusively be used for the continuation of payment of employee wages, salaries, and benefits, according to the Treasury’s website. More updates are promised as it approves additional applications and makes incremental payments. 


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