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Firm operating out of Fargo denies FAA allegations of unqualified pilots, unauthorized planes

A TapJets Inc. jet is ready for flight in front of Fargo maintenance hangars. TapJets / Special to Forum News Service1 / 3
A "VIP passenger" enjoys a flight on a TapJets jet. The company says it gets busy transporting humans and canines to major dog shows around the country. TapJets / Special to Forum News Service2 / 3
A TapJets jet undergoes line service in Fargo. TapJets / Special to Forum News Service3 / 3

FARGO — The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an emergency order against TapJets Inc. of Fargo and Spring, Texas, to prevent the company from conducting charter flights.

The emergency order of revocation, which was issued and went into effect Friday, Jan. 26, alleges TapJets conducted passenger-carrying flights using unqualified pilots and operating unauthorized aircraft, the FAA said in a news release.

The FAA alleges that between Sept. 28, 2016, and Jan. 22, 2017, TapJets operated 10 passenger-carrying flights with unqualified pilots. On one of those flights, the airman who served as second-in-command only had a student-pilot certificate, but a commercial-pilot certificate was required, the FAA said.

Also, the FAA alleges that both TapJets' president and its director of operations piloted several of these flights when either the crew was unqualified or the aircraft being used was unauthorized.

The FAA said the company conducted 14 passenger-carrying flights with aircraft that it was not authorized to use because they were not listed on its air carrier certificate.

The agency said TapJets knowingly used unqualified pilots, operated in a careless or reckless manner that endangered lives or property, and exhibited a cavalier attitude toward regulatory compliance.

TapJets founder and CEO Eugene Kesselman said in an email Tuesday, Jan. 30, that the FAA order is under appeal. And the company, which describes itself as the "Uber of private jets," issued a statement denying the allegations and any wrongdoing.

The statement said that more than a year ago, during TapJets' initial development, the firm conducted a small number of flights for friends of the company and family of owners and key vendors. No payment was received for the flights, and they were conducted in full compliance with FAA regulations, the company said.

"We used these flights in the development and testing of our software," the statement said. "We are concerned about why — a year after the fact — the FAA has raised these allegations based on an anonymous complaint."

"Just like Uber, Airbnb, and other successful companies that changed the status-quo, TapJets Inc. is now facing push-back by government regulators," said Debra Fein, corporate counsel for TapJets.

On Tuesday, the Facebook and Twitter accounts for TapJets were still seeking bids for flights, and flight auctions were continuing on the company's website. Asked what sort of sanctions TapJets would face if it was still operating flights, the FAA said it couldn't answer questions about the company's operations "because the matter is in litigation."

Launched in April 2016, TapJets says it's the only company in the world that offers instant flight booking through an app. Customers can hail a jet to pick them up at their nearest airport in as little as an hour and fly them to their destination of choice within the contiguous United States.

Rather than build up a large fleet of its own jets, the company uses algorithms to find the closest charter jet and assign the trip to other charter operators. If another company can't take the request, TapJets has five jets of its own to pick up the flight.

Kesselman told The Forum for a May 2017 article that the firm could have set up anywhere, but Fargo had a couple of things in its favor.

Small private jet flights represent a $20 billion industry in the U.S., he said, and there are about 4,000 to 5,000 such flights a month. For a company with just a few aircraft, launching in a major metropolitan area with an unending demand for flights "would've been disastrous."

Fargo worked because it has fewer regional flights, ensuring TapJets won't overextend itself.

Kesselman said he was impressed by this "very aviation-progressive region," including the capabilities of Fargo Jet Center. TapJets has offices at 3802 20th St. N., a space that's leased from Fargo Jet Center.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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