Business Aviation Operations: unique security challenges

Determining whether or not business aviation is facing a security challenge is problematic. It is difficult enough determining the sectorial accident rate, even though evidence of an accident is usually tangible. Evidence of a security incident is markedly less so, and inconsistencies in the way these are reported probably result in the number and type of incidents being understated. Opinions differ widely with regard to the scope of aviation security that is relevant to this sector. Some stakeholders imply that background checks for pilots and ensuring they are issued with official airport identification badges where relevant is sufficient. Others believe that measures covering facilities, personnel, aircraft security and procedures, i.e. a security plan or programme, are required. There is a view that business aviation is ‘secure by nature’; though others contend that in fragile states, it is sometimes used as a means of money laundering, drug smuggling and other unlawful activities. It has been argued that privately owned aircraft have almost no oversight and that nobody’s paying attention, but what is the reality and what, if anything, needs to be done about it? John Edwards investigates.

Business aviation is, in essence, the use of private jets or helicopters (often under charter) by top executives, high profile politicians or aircraft owners (who may be corporates or Very High Net Worth individuals) for business or pleasure, however this article will focus on business charter. Most of the aircraft used are small, typically having between 4 and 19 passenger seats. The appeal of chartering a jet, over booking a premium seat on a scheduled service airline, is easy to see. Business jets can be chartered to anywhere that an operator is prepared to go; certainly to very many more destinations than are offered by scheduled service airlines, and on a day and at a time that works for the passengers. Flights often depart from dedicated VIP terminals and therefore the passengers avoid the hassle and stress associated with adjacent passenger terminals.

The Security Context

Viewed from a global perspective, business aviation is a huge sector of our industry and yet in many countries, it is, or has been, subject to scant regulation, at least from an aviation security perspective. However, this is beginning to change. There are signs that the higher accident rate (compared with scheduled service airlines) has not only prompted a focus on enhancing regulation of, and leadership commitment to, safety but that this is spilling over into other regulated domains. Refreshingly, this may be positive, because some major regulators have acknowledged that the sector must be able ‘to maintain participation, activity and growth levels’ and that ‘proportionality of regulation is of upmost importance for this sector’.
In 1994, a Dassault Mystère-Falcon 50 executive jet carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and its French flight crew was shot down over Kigali, killing all on board. Obviously, this occurred a long time ago, but has the threat reduced? Arguably, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons is a greater problem today than it was then and the threat could be similar or worse.

Business jet clients are, very often, relatively or extremely wealthy. To those who are not so fortunate, this is obvious and can cause serious disgruntlement. As with any overt display of affluence, it can generate feelings of anger, resentment and revolt, and clients and operators may need protection, depending on the locations of operations, the surrounding levels of poverty and the strength and effectiveness of the rule of law.

Business jets operate into major international airports where they can be subject to similar, if not identical, regulations as scheduled service airlines. However, many also operate to states where there may be few or no sector-specific regulatory requirements and into small airfields and airstrips where there may be no security infrastructure, little or no ramp lighting and unobstructed access to parked aircraft. Owners and their contracted aircraft management company (where these are not the same) mostly secure their aircraft when they are not in service to try to prevent them being flown by unauthorised persons, to try to prevent unauthorised access and to try to prevent other related risks e.g. theft, interference with aircraft systems, etc. But business jets can spend significant amounts of time parked between operations, and the methods deployed to secure them can vary significantly. Some operators rely on inbuilt locking mechanisms while others will complement these with anti-theft devices or by storing the aircraft in a secure hangar. In some locations, crew and passenger screening is undertaken, but there are differing views about the need for and merits of this and also whether flight crews should be subject to psychological screening.

The ways in which security measures are managed and overseen by business aviation operators (BAOs) vary considerably. Some operators have dedicated security professionals, while others, understandably, require their security adviser to be a dual role, e.g. also having responsibility for quality auditing. ‘Hold’ baggage (which on business jets can normally be accessed from the passenger cabin) mishandling incidents do occur; in a recent incident, a bag was loaded onto an aircraft that the owner was not, and had never planned to be, travelling on and the error was only discovered when the aircraft was inflight. Business jet passengers tend to value their privacy greatly and some do not want their baggage labelled. Baggage loading is often overseen, or indeed undertaken, by the crew. Storage of business jet hold baggage can be insecure and therefore the bags can be vulnerable to theft or the introduction of an explosive or incendiary device. There is not, and cannot be, a secure cockpit door – access to the clients by the flight crew is vital for safety reasons – as most often, the flight crew conduct the safety briefings.

Some territories to which BAOs operate suffer from endemic corruption and widespread solicitation of bribery. This is relevant because if airport employees fall into this category, it increases the need for operators to safeguard their operations; the security integrity of an aircraft that has been ‘guarded’ by a corrupt security agent is clearly questionable.