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Business jet crashes raise safety concerns

The global marketplace has made business jets more popular than ever.  But in just the last month, a series of three high-profile crashes have raised concerns after the safety record of small, private jets. By CNBC's Maya Kulycky.
National Transportation Safety Board Investigator Arnold Scott, left, and the Montrose, Colo. sheriff walk near the tail of a business jet after it crashed Sunday. Recent accidents have raised questions about the safety of small planes.Nathan Bilow / AP
/ Source: CNBC

The global marketplace has made business jets more popular than ever as more and more companies are operating their own planes or chartering others.

Over the past ten years, the number of American flights on business jets increased by 20 percent. The number of business jets out there has grown by 10 percent.

But in just the last month, three high-profile crashes have raised concerns over the safety of small, private jets.

On Sunday, a plane carrying NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol crashed in Colorado. Ebersol and his eldest son somehow escaped along with another passenger. Ebersol's younger son is listed as missing. Two other people were killed in the crash of the Challenger 601-1A jet, which is made by Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier. (MSNBC is is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

On Nov. 22, a small plane on its way to pick up former President George Bush crashed in Texas.

Earlier in the month, ten people associated with a NASCAR racing team were killed in a small plane crash in Virginia.

So, how safe is business jet travel? 

“I think business jets have a terrific safety record over the last several years,” said Ed Bolen, CEO of the National Business Aviation Association. “You’ll see that it compares very favorably with the commercial airlines. So I think the accident rate shows that these types of airlines are very, very safe.”

That record applies to professionally-flown business jets operated by the companies that own them.

But statistics show that accidents are two to three times more common with a chartered air taxi operator. Those operators don’t necessarily own the plane they are flying.

“The smaller operations, particularly the ones that are not well financed, tend to have a tougher time flying older airplanes and may have a harder time with the maintenance,” said Prof. John Hansman, Director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. “So the safety record is a little bit lower, but again it is still quite high.”

Industry representatives say travelers thinking of flying in a smaller jet would benefit by doing a little research first.

“They can look at how long the charter operator has been in service, the size of the operation ...” said Bolen. “They can look to the pilot's experience. There are a number of ways to ensure that you are dealing with a very good charter operator.”

The maintains a database on the safety records of a variety of corporate jets.

Experts told CNBC that business jet safety is increasing more rapidly than it is among scheduled air carriers — and when it comes to flying overall, it’s still relatively safe.

Jet maker’s stock falls
Shares of Bombardier fell 4 percent Monday to the lowest level of the year. The stock took a hit after a business plane carrying NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol crashed in Colorado on Sunday.

Leo Knappen, a spokesman for the business jet division at Bombardier Aerospace, said the Montreal-based train and plane maker had dispatched two specialists to help U.S. investigators with their crash inquiry.

The Challenger 601-1A can seat up to 10 passengers and the one involved in the crash was at least 17 years old, Knappen said. Of the 635 Challenger aircraft in service, 67 are Challenger 601-1As, which were first delivered to customers from May 1983 to May 1987.

Knappen said it was too early to say what may have caused the crash and there was no indication that that authorities may ground the Challenger 601-1A fleet pending the investigation.

"The Challenger family has an impeccable safety record — over 2.5 million hours of flight time," Knappen said.

"To date, including yesterday's unfortunate mishap, there have only been three accidents involving Challenger aircraft with fatalities over the last 24 years," he added.

The Colorado crash follows the Nov. 21 crash of a Bombardier regional jet operated by China Eastern Airlines that killed 54 people in northern China.