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Feature: Securing the Skies

Michelle Seaton

A dozen years ago, security consultant Israel “Issy” Boim was hired to evaluate a Fortune 500 CEO’s personal security as he traveled abroad. The CEO had bodyguards and privately arranged transportation, including a corporate jet—the things he would need to keep him safe from anyone who would want to harm him. As they waited to take off from a small airport near the CEO’s U.S. corporate headquarters, Boim asked, “Who is in charge of your personal security right now?”

The executive shrugged. “The pilot,” he replied. Boim frowned. While the pilot was surely qualified to fly and land the plane safely, he had no training in identifying or dealing with criminal threats. Boim had been a top security adviser for El Al Israel Airlines. In Israel, there is no such thing as general aviation. There is only civil aviation, which must meet strict security guidelines to counter the constant threat of terrorism.

In the United States, corporate jets fly out of more than 5,000 general aviation fields. Boim knew that at the time, many of those fields had little fencing, few security guards, no security cameras, flimsy locks on hangar doors, and virtually no policy for screening the people allowed to drive right onto the tarmac to deliver passengers, luggage, and food. And in many cases, passengers hardly knew the pilots who were flying their planes.

In the past decade, Boim has built a successful consulting business called Air Security International Inc. It teaches corporations how to safely send executives and employees around the world.

Boim’s clients knew that security was an important consideration when flying abroad. Still, many of them refused to consider the possibility of stateside threats—until September 11. “The concept of domestic security did not exist on September 10,” he says.

If you have developed a new aversion to commercial airline travel since September 11 because of long lines or security concerns, you have no doubt considered private flight, either in the form of buying a business jet, chartering a plane, or entering a fractional ownership program. “I’ve had calls for that exact scenario,” says Scott Cannon, president of the helicopter division of Gantt Aviation, a charter company based in Austin, Texas. “Someone calls to say, ‘I can’t get on an airliner ever again,’ either because of fear, or because of the increased delays.”

David MacDonald, president of Regal Aviation in Dallas, has been receiving more phone calls recently as well. First-time customers, who had never before considered private aviation as a viable business expense, are inquiring about chartering or aircraft ownership, which does not surprise MacDonald. “I’m a pilot. I’m not afraid to fly, but I’m afraid to fly on the airlines,” he says.

In addition to providing a greater sense of security because you know all of the passengers on your flights, private aviation is safe. In 2000, aircraft flown for corporate use were involved in only eight crashes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Four of those accidents were fatal and resulted in 13 deaths. That equals 0.125 accidents for every 100,000 corporate flight hours and 0.06 fatal accidents. The worst year for corporate flight was 1985, when there were 0.31 fatal accidents for every 100,000 flight hours.

Despite those advantages, private flight was seen as a luxury rather than a necessity for doing business prior to September 11. That changed when the airlines began demanding that fliers show up hours before their flights, making commercial travel more inconvenient than ever. In addition, companies are beginning to reason that the potential cost of losing a top executive in another terrorist attack justifies the cost of private flight. “I’ve had CEOs call me because their board of directors had an emergency meeting and decided that their senior executives aren’t allowed to fly commercial anymore,” says MacDonald. “They have to buy a jet now.”

Becoming a private flier may seem like an easy and safe alternative to commercial flight. Private aviation does have its own security issues, but until recently, you would have had little cause to be concerned about them. For example, you probably would not have been interested in how much security is provided by fixed base operators (FBOs, aircraft-related businesses that operate at general aviation fields, including charter companies and flight management firms). Until a few months ago, often the answer was not much. That is no longer true. “Security before September 11 was an afterthought—the first thing to fall out of the budget,” says Kelly McCann, president and CEO of Crucible Security Specialists, a security consulting firm that provides private security for executives and government officials traveling abroad. “Now you have a litigious possibility if you don’t provide it.”

It is also likely that you would not have asked who was flying the plane. If you are chartering a plane or own only a one-sixteenth share of a jet in a fractional program, you do not have an in-house chief pilot who works for your company. You may be familiar with your chummy limo driver who takes your wife shopping or drops your kids off at school each day, but you will be in a different situation when chartering a jet or owning a fractional share of an aircraft. “I can guarantee you that the average fractional jet owner knows a lot less about his pilots and crew than an airline does,” says Rick Charles, head of the aviation management program at Georgia State University.

Even if your company has a flight management department or a chief pilot who hires crews personally, you will still have a limited ability to secure your aircraft and make sure no one has access to it in off-hours. To do that, you must rely on the FBO, and consultants such as Boim will evaluate airfields’ security levels.

Boim says FBOs have welcomed his presence, because they want to learn more about how to secure aircraft between flights, conduct background checks on employees, and check luggage. “There is some competition between FBOs,” he says. “They want to say to customers, ‘Choose me, because I’m already taking security measures.’ ”

MacDonald’s clients are already asking the right questions about security at Love Field in Dallas, where all entrances and exits are gated and locked, and outside doors are locked as well. “You can’t just walk in here,” says MacDonald. “Now not even the caterers can drive onto the field.”

Aside from hiring experienced security personnel, FBOs can take simple safety precautions such as cutting down the brush that surrounds an airport so people cannot hide nearby and case the facility, says McCann. He also advocates adding or repairing fencing to prevent unauthorized access to their fields, and adding floodlights to doorways and access points that are not used much at night.

McCann says that FBOs incorporate some of the safeguards used at larger commercial airports, where security personnel make rounds at random intervals with guard dogs. Commercial airports are also installing dozens of CCTV security cameras—some that work, and others that are fake. “You can install look-alike cameras with only a few of them working at the true access points. The point is to project a security posture to the bad guy so he comes to the conclusion that this will be too hard,” McCann says.

Keeping criminals off the airfield at night is one thing, but keeping unauthorized individuals away from the aircraft during busy workdays is another. You should know who has touched your aircraft since the last time you flew in it, but chief pilots and FBOs are not always able to answer that question. This is partly because corporate jets spend so much downtime parked unattended in hangars, says Wayne Black, a private security specialist. To address that problem, he says, FBOs can mount digital cameras in their hangars to monitor the aircraft 24 hours a day. The morning before a flight, a security guard can fast-forward through the tape, looking for anything suspicious, says Black, who also advocates motion sensors around hangared aircraft.

Outright ownership of a jet can create new security issues. You may be advised to rent your jet to charter companies between uses, because rental fees will help defray the costs of jet ownership. If you do, or if your company already rents out your jet, you should approach the charter company with a new set of security demands. “I have owners calling me all the time, saying, ‘Who’s on my aircraft when I’m not using it?’ ” says MacDonald.

Most charter companies are familiar with their regular clients, but the companies are also trying to attract new customers. Now, says MacDonald, if someone calls and requests a charter, the company must ask a few questions beyond “What’s your credit card number?” In some cases, crew members may check baggage before it is loaded, and FBO personnel have sometimes called the police to detain charter passengers until an FAA official can go through luggage bag by bag.

eBizJets, a service that rents flight time from jet owners to fly its clients, asks its members to provide IDs and sign in before each flight. Company cofounder Paul Svensen says the company’s clients have all agreed, even if they are sports stars such as Shaquille O’Neal or Nomar Garciaparra. They have also agreed not to drive their limos onto the tarmac. Instead, a golf cart picks them up outside the airport gate. eBizJets has also enlisted former FBI agents to help update security, and checks its manifests against FBI lists of most wanted criminals and terrorists.

eBizJets is not the only private aviation provider that checks IDs against manifests. McCann, who served as a security consultant for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, says that the checking of manifests is becoming tighter on all flights, even with sports team flights on which the players and coaches know each other and are familiar to the pilot and crew. “It used to be that a player could show up at the airport with a buddy and just get him on the flight. Those days are gone,” says McCann.

Security, say aviation experts, is not a buzzword that will fade away over time. In fact, safety may become more important as jet sales perk up and the fractional ownership and charter markets get back on track. “As time goes by, you may see the industry evolve to where people belong to a secure, membership-only flying community,” says MacDonald. “We may end up with elite flying groups that have all gone through security checks. We have the technology to do that already.”

Michelle Seaton is a Boston-based writer and a private pilot.

Ahead of the Trend

Security has become a primary issue for travelers since September 11, and private aviation companies, including fractional ownership companies, have been scrambling to implement comprehensive security measures. But NetJets, the largest fractional ownership company in the world, had already taken steps to improve security on its planes.

NetJets hired Air Security International Inc., a Houston-based company that specializes in aviation security. Air Security International provides NetJets with daily bulletins on political developments abroad that might pose risks for American travelers. “Every single trip where we think there’s going to be a security issue—which means every international flight—we provide our owners with security reports and sometimes Air Security International personnel on board to secure the plane while it’s hangared abroad,” says Kevin Russell, senior vice president. Air Security International sometimes even advises NetJets owners against flying to certain locations that might pose security risks.

NetJets also had a rigorous hiring process in place before September 11 to pick the best pilots. In 2000, more than 8,000 pilots applied for jobs at NetJets. After putting the applicants through performance screenings and flight simulator testing, NetJets conducted financial background checks, criminal checks, and psychological testing, and only 450 pilots were hired. The NetJets pilot pool now includes 11 former Air Force One pilots. Air Security International trains the NetJets pilots to conduct pre- and postflight sweeps on every section of their planes, from the cockpit to the wheelwells.

If a NetJets client wants to know who has been on the plane since the last time he or she flew, the company has the answer. When you schedule a flight with NetJets, you must provide a complete manifest. And all passengers must present a photo ID before takeoff, according to company policy. Russell says the policy extends to company founder Richard Santullo, and even to Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of Executive Jet Inc., which owns NetJets. Says Russell: “They don’t get any special consideration beyond what any other client gets.”

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