ABOVE: Flightpath’s website was still offering lessons and trial flights on 30 November 2022 [IMAGE: WEBARCHIVE.COM]
After disputes with its director, a flying school closes, owing its students thousands. A clear ‘fitness of character’ issue, yet the CAA turned the other way
Words: Eugenio Facci
It was a Tuesday afternoon. An inconspicuous email landed in Pilot’s inbox, alerting us about a flight school director in Wolverhampton who had allegedly duped his students of about £60,000. Unfortunately, in a newsroom these kinds of emails are not uncommon: investigations are always started, but often it turns out that the evidence is not very strong, that the case is actually quite nuanced and not very clear, or that simply there isn’t much of a situation. This time, however, a preliminary review and a few enquiries quickly led to numerous and consistent witness accounts and pieces of evidence, and so we started to takeacloser look at the case. But, as the scenario became increasingly clearer, an even more important question emerged: why is the CAA not doing anything about this?
“HE TURNED ANGRY AND HUNG UP ON ME”“My story is that in December 2020 I paid £4,997 for a thirty-hour LAPL(A) training package,” says one of the many students that gave us an account of their experience. “Training was slow due to poor weather, instructor unavailability, and plane maintenance problems. In July 2022 the school director wrote to customers saying that, as costs had increased, he needed us to pay more money in addition to our pre-payments [the student was still training for his LAPL -Ed]. I responded to him to try to be clear about what was being requested. He stalled for the next few weeks and on 20 August I proposed that, as he had not confirmed the new rate, that it was reasonable for him to refund the unused portion of my pre-paid hours. He turned angry and accused me of being overly aggressive and hung up on me. I haven’t been able to reach him since.” The witness accounts that we reviewed all describe a similar scenario: the school would take deposits for a course, start the flying lessons, and then it would slow down the delivery of lessons for reasons that seemed plausible (primarily maintenance and instructor availability). Sometimes, halfway through a course, additional payments would be requested in order to continue flying – again for reasons that seemed reasonable, like increased fuel cost.
To each student, acting individually, the slow pace of training seemed unfortunate, yet reasonable. It was only when students started talking to each other that a potential pattern of deceit started to emerge, along with a large number of consistent clues. According to the students, for instance, the school director would sometimes force payments to be made in cash, with poor record-keeping and questionable receipts (on the UK government’s Companies House website several firms associated with the school director are marked for overdue statements or were given compulsory strike-off notices). Some flight instructors at Flightpath were also reportedly not happy – one of them contacted us to say that the school still owed him £28,500.
So, there was a potential problem, and the students joined forces to contact Action Fraud (the UK Police unit tasked with fraud investigations) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). And here is where the story took a surprising turn.
CANNOT INVESTIGATE (ALTHOUGH WE SHOULD…)
The students wrote lengthy and detailed emails to the CAA, detailing how they felt defrauded and asking for action to be taken. Flightpath was a Declared Training Organisation (DTO), meaning that the CAA had oversight of the school, and that there was a specific CAA Inspector assigned to it. However, the Authority surprisingly rejected the students’ requests, saying that it considered the matter simply a financial dispute, that there were no potential safety implications and that, as such, it had no power to investigate.
Replying to a complainant in July 2022, for instance, the CAA said ‘I am afraid we cannot assist in financial disputes between flying schools and their customers’, adding however that it ‘had seen a number of other complaints, all of which have a thread very similar to yours’ and that ‘it might well be the case that there has been some financial impropriety or fraud taking place’ (see box).
In this case, the rules are very clear: the CAA’s own ‘Fitness of Character’ policy states that the Authority must act when the trustworthiness of an individual under its oversight is in doubt. The policy does not even give the CAA an option: not only does it say that the Authority can investigate, it says that it must do so. So, on that account, it is likely that the CAA broke its own rules.
HOW CAN I (NOT) HELP?
Besides the legal requirements, what emerged from this case was the Authority’s limited ability (or maybe willingness?) to assist the students. For instance, the Fitness of Character policy gives clear examples of what would enable the Authority to disqualify a school director, mentioning among others ‘civil sanctions’. Did the Authority actively seek out that type of evidence? No. Did it mention it to the complainants? No. Was such evidence available? Yes; with a couple of emails Pilot obtained evidence of two different County Court Judgments issued against Flighpath’s Director for failure to repay a debt.
So, why didn’t the CAA mention the Fitness of Character policy to the students? Why didn’t the Authority clearly explain to them what evidence was needed to start an investigation? And why didn’t it obtain this evidence? We asked the Authority about this, and its explanation was as follows: ‘the CAA has received no direct reports that would indicate Flightpath Aviation, or those associated with managing its operations, have breached aviation safety regulations’. Essentially, the Authority was seemingly unaware of its own Fitness of Character policy, which never mentions safety and is simply concerned with the honesty of a licensed individual (conceivably because it assumes that a dishonest person is also unsafe). In other words, it seems that the CAA forgot its own rules, and was under the impression that it could only intervene when complainants submit a report concerned only with safety.
But even in this case the whole story does not seem to add up. Safety, in fact, was mentioned by some complainants, and the CAA’s statement that it ‘has received no direct reports… [of] breached aviation safety regulations’ is, at best, misleading. In July 2022, for instance, the mother of a young student emailed the Authority worried about the safety of her son doing flight training at the school. In her email she mentioned an episode where the school director had become angry with her son because he had looked at a nearby school to continue his training, since he was frustrated by the frequent delays at Flightpath. This happened right before a training flight, and the student’s mum advised him not to fly because of potential safety issues. However, the student was allegedly pressured to go flying by the school’s staff, and he did go on his flight lesson. In her email, the student’s mother also mentioned that she was worried because an aircraft that was supposedly in maintenance was suddenly made available for a flight after her son complained.
So, the CAA had received complaints not only about pre-payments not being honoured, but also about potential safety issues. However, the Authority says that it ‘has received no direct reports’ about safety issues, and therefore it did not investigate.
Overall, it is likely that the CAA breached its own policies in dealing with the whole case, and in the process it definitely managed to disappoint a large number of students. A detailed explanation by the Authority of what went wrong, and why – along with an institutional shake-up and a reimbursement of damages – would not be unwelcome.