MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A national research firm warned of safety concerns with Aviation Charter Inc. more than a year before one of the company's planes crashed, killing Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported Thursday that Aviation Research Group/US of Cincinnati gave a "Does Not Qualify" rating to Aviation Charter in 2001. The rating, based on an analysis of federal public records, is the lowest of four ratings given by Aviation Research Group.
The "Does Not Qualify" rating warns clients that Aviation Charter does not meet the firm's safety standards. Aviation Research Group/US President Joe Moeggenberg said his firm's 77-page report on Aviation Charter shows "a history of problems" including a fatal crash in 1997.
Among the 875 air charter firms rated by ARG/US, 66, or about 8 percent, currently have the "Does Not Qualify" rating.
ARG/US has been using its formula rate charter operators for three years. The company's customers buy its services to help them decide what charter companies to fly with, information that's particularly in demand since Sept. 11, 2001. Its customers include the state of Minnesota.
Aviation Charter, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Roger and Shirley Wikner, continues to carry the "Does Not Qualify" rating. The Wikners said this week in a written statement that they had not heard of ARG/US.
"We intend to find out more about this company and research its reporting data to evaluate its content and accuracy," they said.
The Wikners said the ARG/US report contained inaccuracies, which they wouldn't specify, about Aviation Charter's fleet. Through a spokesman, they said the ARG/US report contains one negative incident involving an air ambulance flight that didn't involve any personnel from Aviation Charter.
The Wikners said a different aviation auditing firm, Hynes and Associates Inc. of Frederick, Okla., examined Aviation Charter operations in December, after the Wellstone crash, with positive results. The Wikners declined to provide a copy of the audit.
Safety auditor Michael Hynes said he was "very impressed" with management and operations at Aviation Charter after his five-day, onsite visit. Hynes said he was hired for the audit by a major customer of Aviation Charter who was concerned after the Wellstone crash. In a Dec. 11 letter to Aviation Charter, Hynes said: "I feel that you and your staff have been, and still are, providing safe and high-quality air transportation services to the public."
The Hynes audit was one of two safety audits last year by outside firms, the Wikners said. They declined to say who did the first safety audit, which took place before the crash.
ARG/US sometimes makes onsite visits for its ratings, but it did not make an onsite visit to Aviation Charter.
This month, the state of Minnesota's Office of Aeronautics subscribed to ARG/US for the first time. Ray Rought, director of the aeronautics office, said the ratings provide a way to help evaluate air charter companies hired by the state.
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