The Inconsistency of Safety Across North America’s Private Airports

The Inconsistency of Safety Across North America’s Private Airports

The dirtiest and biggest secret when it comes to private airports and the airline industry has to be that large amounts of contraband drugs are flown into Canada or between provinces at them and that these airports are under no obligation to have security levels equivalent to the major airports in Canada.  What may be worse is that the lack of security at private airports is openly leveraged as a selling feature by air charter companies, and it is a selling feature that organized criminal groups are eager to exploit.  As bad as that sounds, what makes this problem so much more complicated is that security blind spots at private airports are a problem that also plagues the U.S.  That makes both our countries that much more susceptible to harm.  Worst of all, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) specifically stated in their 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment that more and more traffickers are utilizing private airplanes and secondary airports that have less security.  But private planes that are never searched mean it is impossible for any policing agency to accurately quantify the volume of drugs that get trafficked that way, as opposed to vehicles on highways and screened mail, which is where police focus most of their efforts.

One of the godfathers of plane smuggling cases, Kenneth Martinson, who worked as a Homeland Security Investigations agent in the U.S., has been quoted as saying that private airports and private planes get overlooked.  Martinson has also said that the next time people see a private plane in the sky and wonder about that plane’s origin, destination, and occupants, there is a good chance it could be contraband drugs, which hints at just how prevalent the issue is.  A similar message was echoed by the DEA’s head of their aviation division: that commercial airports have become so sophisticated at safety and security screenings that traffickers need to look elsewhere for air travel accommodations.  So, while it may be true that the majority of drugs found across our two countries are hidden on trucks or packaged and mailed, that percentage might change significantly if private airports and private planes were searched in the manner that is seen at commercial airports and with commercial flights.

If there were not enough good reasons for private airports and air charter companies to want to ensure a basic standard of security, then the laws allowing for the seizure of aircraft used in furtherance of a drug-related crime including distribution, and that proving their innocence often requires retaining expensive lawyers should be reason enough.  If they are unable to prove that they were unaware that the aircraft was being used to distribute drugs, or that they provided a timely notice to an appropriate law enforcement agency, then they would likely face jail time in addition to the massive financial costs that would incur.  However, even if air charter companies were able to prove their innocence, getting the airplane returned might take months, or years, and it would likely still involve high legal costs.

Pivot Airlines Flight Crew Caught Up In Cocaine Saga in the Dominican Republic

In April of 2022, nine Canadians were detained and jailed after cocaine was seized from their jet in the Dominican Republic, and that is precisely how the initial story was described by various news organizations across Canada.  However, it would only take a week for this story to turn into a thriller plot.  It was the flight crew who had identified mystery bags in their avionics bay and notified Dominican police, but when they came to inspect the plane, they only removed a few of the bags from the plane and then ordered the flight crew to take off.  When the flight crew returned to inspect the space, they found that most of the bags were still there, but after renotifying the Dominican police that all the bags had not been removed, everyone on that flight was detained and arrested, and the bags were identified as being 210 kilograms of cocaine with a value of 25 million dollars.

The flight crew and their passengers would spend months in jail before all charges were dropped after video footage showed that an unknown person had pulled up to the plane in an official airport truck, opened the avionics bay in the early hours of the morning, and stuffed the space full of cocaine.  Initially, the video footage that helped free the flight crew seemed to get deleted by someone who had access to the airport’s security cameras.  Thankfully the video splice was discovered by one of the flight attendants and forensic technicians were able to recover it.  Without that video footage, this flight crew would have spent even more time in jail for doing everything that was required of them – notifying both the RCMP and Dominican police.  After all the Canadians were allowed to return back to Canada, what should have been the end of a nightmare only worsened when investigative journalists uncovered that the RCMP seemed to have intelligence that indicated that the purpose of the flight to the Dominican Republic was solely to attempt to import contraband drugs.

The total amount of time that this ordeal lasted was close to ten months, the crew spent two months in jail and eight months under house arrest, and yet somehow the Dominican’s police force never managed to interview any of them.  What is worse is that neither the RCMP nor Transport Canada have interviewed any of the crew members since they returned back from the Dominican Republic.  The scope of this perverse situation was covered CTV’s investigative program W5, which was able to uncover that there were multi-year threat assessments conducted on one of the passengers on the flight and that the RCMP already had multiple passengers on their radar.  Furthermore, the W5 team were able to get a response from the outgoing RCMP Commissioner, Brenda Lucki, confirming that the RCMP was aware of potential drug shipments weeks before the incident.  Additionally, the episode concludes with a retired RCMP officer, an expert on financial crime and transnational crime (organized crime), who voices his dissatisfaction with today’s version of the RCMP and their inaction regarding the air flight crew.

Have you heard of untraceable and unregistered flights known as “Black Flights”?

If what happened to the Pivot Airlines flight crew in the Dominican Republic with the cocaine saga is not enough to convince people that something needs to be done with the lack of safety and security measures at private airports, then perhaps learning that it is possible for airplanes to fly untraceable and unregistered should do the trick.

In 2021, two pilots were arrested for using a U.S.-registered Gulfstream G2 private jet to traffic multi-ton shipments of cocaine from South America to West Africa.  Their plans involved landing on makeshift airstrips in the Sahara Desert and other places, and they would market their flights as VIP commercial flights.  However, during their test shipment, flying from Mali to Croatia with drugs on board, the pair were arrested by the Croatian National Police in coordination with the DEA.  The two pilots were extradited to the U.S.  So, while the DEA and Croatian National Police were able to contain those would-be smugglers, it should be suspected that there are others who are eager to exploit security blind spots and answer the call to smuggle contraband.

How do we protect innocent people from getting caught in harms way?

The corruption of Dominican police nor the inaction of the RCMP with regard to the Pivot Airlines flight crew members should not surprise anyone.  While the Dominican Republic is a developing country known for its inconsistent justice system, the RCMP is one of the world’s premier police agencies and much more is expected out of them.  However, inaction related to major incidents and silence about what was known prior to major incidents is a trend that seems to be following the RCMP, when you consider their interactions with the gunman who carried out the 2020 Nova Scotia attack, and there are likely many other instances where investigative journalists never got involved to uncover the  connections.  Silence and acting as if nothing transpired, then waiting it out seems the preferred approach by every policing agency, without accountability unless there is video evidence and the public made aware of what transpired.

Let us consider that Transport Canada’s website openly states that there are different safety requirements for three separate categories of airports.  Commercial airports are referred to as certified aerodromes and they are required to have around the clock security, multiple screening check points carried out by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), and even police officers present.  Private airports are referred to as registered aerodromes, and they are not subject to ongoing inspections to verify compliance with Canadian Aviation Regulations.  Then small airstrips on private property are referred to as aerodromes and neither registered nor certified, and both have far lower safety and security requirements.

All of the airport security and border security shows modelled after COPS  that promise to provide a glimpse on “the front lines of national security” get nowhere near the level of the national security that involves organized crime and the largescale trafficking of contraband or the kind of criminals involved in that world.  Ultimately, there is nothing we can learn from shows like that to figure out how we can protect innocent people from getting caught in harms way or compounding harm leakage because of the security blind spots at private airports.  Instead, it is necessary to understand the challenge at its core, the structures around the challenge, and the limitations of current legislation related to the challenge.  That can only be achieved by connecting with the necessary stakeholders.

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