Small Chartered Planes May Pose Big Risks

The U.S. chartered plane industry is growing, with nearly 7,000 such aircraft currently in operation. But in light of three crashes in recent weeks, questions are being raised about the safety of these flights.

A plane carrying NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol and five other people crashed on takeoff Sunday at a Colorado airport. Ebersol's 14-year-old son was missing and presumed dead, and two crew members were killed. Ebersol, his 21-year-old son, Charles, and a third crew member survived.

The crash came a week after a chartered jet went down in Houston while on its way to pick up former President Bush for a trip to Ecuador. All three people on board were killed.

A month earlier, on Oct. 24, the Hendricks NASCAR team plane crashed in Virginia, killing all 10 people on board.

The use of chartered planes has increased as much as 12 percent a year over the last three years, according to Air Charter Guide, an industry publication. Meanwhile, the fatal accident rate for charters, according to industry reports, is more than 50 times higher than that of commercial airlines. For company or corporate flights, the fatal accident rate is 2 ½ times greater than the major airlines.

Greater Challenges for Pilots

One reason the industry cites for the higher fatality rate is dangerous flying conditions in Alaska, where chartered flights are part of the way of life.

The pilots of chartered planes often operate in a challenging environment.

"These are asked to go into smaller airfields that have less lighting, less approach aides, less radio facilities and that sort of thing," said Ron Swanda of the General Aviation Manufacturer's Association.

Some say requirements for charter operations should be more like those for major airlines, which must have a designated safety officer who is solely responsible for ensuring safe operations.

Smaller charter planes, those with fewer than 10 seats, have less stringent rules for maintenance and training.

"Unlike an airline, where standardization level is very stringently enforced, the standardization level for a two- or four-person operation isn't anywhere near the same," said John Nance, ABC News' aviation analyst.

Next year, many charter planes will be required to have new safety equipment -- a warning system to alert pilots if they are flying too low.

ABC News' Lisa Stark filed this report for "World News Tonight."