Safety in Private Airports—Part III

The Inconsistency Across North America

After digging into the issue of safety and security at private airports and with private airplanes, “black flights”, and navigating between U.S.  stakeholders, the last stop involved connecting with Canadian stakeholders, including professional associations, governmental departments and agencies, and legislators.  A quick rendezvous prior, with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), indicated that the matter would get raised with their Aviation Security Committee at the next meeting.  Meanwhile, The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) confirmed that it has been taking steps to ensure that police organizations are aware of the growing and evolving public safety threats posed by private airplanes and airports.  The OACP also referenced a report prepared by the RCMP and Crime Stoppers in Ontario that looked into the impact and influence of Transnational Organized Crime groups and their networks within the Canadian Airport Environment and related domains.  The OACP also stated that law enforcement in Ontario remained concerned about the ability of crime groups to exploit vulnerabilities within airports; something subject matter experts maintain is real and employed by successful criminal business models that continue to evolve and expand.

Engaging with Professional Associations

Canada’s airport and air transit ecosystem is full of professional associations that have been created to meet the needs of both airports and pilots.  On the airports side, these associations include differing groups for everything from rural and private airports to city or commercial airports.  There was even an overarching council that was meant to represent airports nation-wide.  But none of these stakeholders were willing to speak on the matter of security and safety for private airports, airplanes, or the untraceable black flights.  The most common response from everyone was that the issue was “outside of their mandate” and that these matters were best suited for the Canadian Airports Council.  But the Canadian Airports Council took the same position, stating that they would not be making any statements regarding the matters.

However, some of these stakeholders were willing to speak without attribution.  They spoke of how these matters had been a long-standing issue and that there are not enough funds, nor the political will, to get the issues around security blind spots addressed.  The only way to address them would be with the appropriate security departments and agencies, as well as legislators, including Navigation Canada, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, The Canadian Border Security Agency, and Transport Canada.

Canada’s departments and agencies in disarray.

Navigation Canada (NAVCAN) is responsible for providing air traffic control, airport advisory services and aeronautical information services for both Canadian and international airspace.  However, NAVCAN highlighted that Transport Canada was the governmental department responsible for regulations.  They also stated that all aircraft flying in Canadian airspace should file flight paths and have their flight tracking signals on before takeoff, and this was a Canadian Aviation Regulation enacted by Transport Canada.  There were no hard deadlines for filing, amending, delaying, or cancelling flight plans, and they could be filed online or by calling a flight information centre.

What was surprising about NAVCAN, however, was that they only released flight plan related information to policing agencies, and they did not compile statistics related to private airports, nor did they publish flight plan data through Statistics Canada.  Whether a person was a statistics junky or a legislator, there would be no way for anyone in Canada to gauge the frequency of flights coming in and out of private airports or other important information associated with that flight plan data that might allow for important patterns to be identified.  The magnitude of the missing data is so significant because it could potentially lead to uncovering a variety of vulnerabilities, ranging from issues around criminal activity and infrastructure to matters of national security and more.

Connecting with Canada’s policing agencies, the message was consistent.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) position was that they were not the police of jurisdiction for all Canadian airports, and they recommended connecting Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) or Transport Canada.  CATSA’s position was that private airports were outside the scope of their mandate, and they recommended connecting with Transport Canada or directly with the private airports.

The Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA), on the other hand, were specifically responsible for enforcing Canadian laws at designated ports of entry in Canada.  In 2022, the CBSA quantified their successes with policing points of entry by highlighting that they screened 60 million travellers arriving to Canada, seized more than 1,100 firearms and 24,400 prohibited weapons, and seized over 41,000 kilograms of illegal drugs.  In their response addressing airport security across Canada, the CBSA explained that all aircraft arriving in Canada from a foreign point of origin had to land at an airport designated for CBSA clearance unless otherwise authorized by the CBSA.

The CBSA highlighted that general aviation air carriers sometimes had the option of reporting to the CBSA through their Telephone Reporting Center as an alternative reporting method that met the legislative requirements for sharing specific information on travellers and declaring any goods.  This process required that the telephone reporting be done at a minimum of two hours in advance of arrival, and with the pilot advising the CBSA on information ranging from the aircraft details to passenger information, so the CBSA could assess for risks and initial admissibility assessments and take the necessary actions.  One of the CBSA’s programs, called CANPASS, was created to make clearing the border easier for private aircraft carrying no more than 15 people and travelling to Canada from the U.S.  CANPASS centered around providing expedited clearances for low-risk, pre-screened travellers.  Surprisingly, private aircrafts that were part of this program were permitted to land at any airport of entry and at any time, even if the local CBSA office was closed.

Looking over the responses and the details of the different programs, there were some glaring grey areas that were ripe for exploiting.  To start, private airports have quite a few areas on their tarmac that are not covered by security cameras, including hangars and facility buildings, which make it possible to load and offload contraband undetected.  Things that the public takes for granted at commercial airports, like passport scanners and other biometric systems, are also absent.  Sure, there are background checks to determine who might be permitted to travel between the U.S. and Canada more loosely, but it reminded me of the case from 2017 where a Californian businessman managed to funnel a billion dollars’ worth of contraband drugs for Mexican drug cartels.

On that occasion, the Californian businessman was a savvy networks technician who managed to exploit the security blind spots at private airports across the U.S. to redistribute drugs domestically, which allowed for a greater quantity of drugs to be trafficked faster than ground transportation.  If it was not for his bragging about being a bandito, being connected with Mexican cartels, and living way beyond his means, he may have gotten away with it far longer.

Transport Canada has sole responsibility for matters such as safety and security.

Canada’s policing agencies are on the front lines and keeping Canadians as safe as possible, but it is Transport Canada that has sole responsibility for matters such as safety and security.  What made the first interaction with Transport Canada interesting is that they initially tried to recommend that I connect with policing agencies, stating that my questions focused on criminality and smuggling.  In response, I informed them that every department and agency, along with all the professional associations, were stating that Transport Canada was the sole arbiter for regulations around Canada’s airport and air transit ecosystem.

In Transport Canada’s subsequent response, it stated that it was in fact the lead Government of Canada department responsible for aviation security and that it routinely conducted comprehensive and targeted analyses of threats and risks to Canadian civil aviation sector.  Not surprisingly, those assessments were classified and could only be shared in strict accordance with security policies and on a need-to-know basis.  Additionally, Transport Canada would not comment on whether they could accurately identify every occupant of a privately chartered flight in real-time, as is possible with commercial flights, for safety and security reasons.  However, where things started to fall apart was with the explanation about specific blind spots at airports and with “black flights”.

The physical blind spots at private airports, where there are no cameras or where cameras were obscured and where most of the offloading of contraband tended to occur, seemed to be a secondary part of Transport Canada’s program.  Their priority focused on ensuring the safety and security of the travelling public, aviation personnel, and cargo.  With respect to “black flights”, Transport Canada stated that their aviation security had no specific activities related to them and they were thus unable to provide any additional information.  The message that seemed to be getting repeated was that details related to these matters and the efforts to address potential security blind spots could not be shared as they were classified.  Perhaps the details around these matters are classified in the eyes of government departments and agencies, but the security blind spots are in the open for everyone to see, especially criminal enterprises who always seem to find a way to exploit every infrastructural vulnerability.

Ministers, Senators, and the House of Commons

During the Pivot Airlines crisis in the Dominican Republic, there was an exchange in the House of Commons between then Minister of Transportation, Omar Alghabra, and Senator David Wells that touched on this issue.  Ultimately, it made sense to connect with Senator Wells; current Minister of Transportation, Pablo Rodriguez; the Minister of Public Safety, Dominic Leblanc; and any House and Senate Committees that focus on public safety and national security to report back to the House of Commons.  But just a few days before reaching out to these stakeholders, the unthinkable happened: terrorist attacks were carried out in Israel where the terrorists managed to evade air detection in the most rudimentary manner, by parachuting into the country.  So, raising the issues around private airports and private airplanes and the outcomes they could lead to with Canada’s legislators became ever more significant.

Upon hearing back from Senator David Well’s office, Senator Wells suggested that the issues around these security vulnerabilities might be one for a future study in Senate committees related to transport and national security.  As it related to the Pivot Airlines crisis, Senator Well’s questions regarding the matter received a similar reply which stated that the Department did not have authority to investigate anything outside their jurisdiction, despite that the questions referenced things within their jurisdiction and contained the commitment for a “full investigation”.

Since neither The House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security or The Senate’s Standing Committee on National Security, Defence and Veteran Affairs had studied the issue directly, they would not comment on the matter.  Public Safety Canada’s position is that the CBSA is best positioned to answer the questions, and Public Safety Minister Leblanc was unreachable.  Minister of Transportation Rodriguez was unreachable, but a member of his Ministerial staff stated the matter was raised with the Minister and that it was shared with other members of the Cabinet.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the issue seems to be gaining some momentum with Massachusetts Congressman, Stephen Lynch, who has introduced legislation to address some of the security blinds spots at private airports and with private planes by requiring disclosure of beneficial ownership by a foreign person of aircraft registration and for other purposes.  But with the state of affairs in the U.S., whether the legislation will ever get passed by Congress is something that is unpredictable.

Unregistered and untraceable Black Flights are a global problem.

On the other side of the world, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission have also been investigating cases involving criminal enterprises that were resorting to black flights, flying between Australia and Papa New Guinea to import hundreds of kilograms of contraband drugs.  This should not come as a surprise because black flights are not as high-tech as they sound.  They are smaller aircraft whose pilots will log false flight plans or none at all, flying at very low altitudes with their flight monitoring systems turned off and so virtually undetectable.  These so-called black flights are the reason that aviation agencies have prerecorded voice messages asking for callers to report low flying airplanes when someone calls the agency.

The reality of the situation is that black flights are a global problem for all the world’s police agencies, and they are one of the leading reasons why policy makers in both Canada and the U.S. need to step up to address the security blind spots at private airports.  It is unrealistic to expect policing agencies to be everywhere at all times.  But simple legislative changes would have a large impact in helping make the airport and air transit travel ecosystem safer and limit the ability for private airports and airplanes to be weaponized for criminal purposes.  If narco-terrorists, who are motivated simply by monetary gain, are aware of the security blind spots at private airports, it is likely that more destructive terrorists, those who want to cause harm and chaos, are also aware of these vulnerabilities.

All of this matters because police professionals who have made their careers working on transnational crime and aviation-related cases have gone on the record to detail their frustration with the status quo of private airports.  Many have described private airports as being absent of any photo ID requirements, ticket confirmation requirements, or baggage screening systems, and that it was possible for flight manifests to be full of fake names.  Perhaps the quote to remember as it relates to the inconsistency of safety across North America’s private airports is, “It’s not a security lapse.  There is no security.”