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Guardian angels for your overseas flight


Security at destinations abroad requires reliable local knowledge.

By J Peter Berendsen
Contributing Writer

Working in collaboration with security providers who have local contacts at your destination, such as Germany-based Xtreme Security, ensures better passenger and aircraft protection.

On my way to a recent duty assignment, I deadheaded from MIA (Intl, Miami FL) to MNL (Manila, Philippines) via DOH (Doha, Qatar). The non-stop flight to DOH took 14 hours on a Boeing 777.

While I was waiting for my connection, I reflected on how effortlessly I had been “beamed” to a faraway place with a foreign culture.

While we take international travel for granted, and ultralong-haul flights are routine and a necessary part of global business, we do sometimes overlook how different cultures may be. We can bridge the distance easily, but to bridge the cultures is more difficult.

Why do I mention this? While the non-stop flight in your business jet may make a faraway place appear close, the foreign culture where we land may have very different norms, opinions, and expected standards of behavior. Many small conflicts are smiled away and solved easily, but others may escalate and even become violent.

Mitigating security risks

Business transactions that we see as totally legitimate may be perceived by locals as unfriendly and/or infringing on their rights. In many cases, our business jet passengers are considered VIPs, and may have to make unpopular decisions at our foreign destination. The risk of violence to our passengers, our crew, and the aircraft itself may be higher than expected. So, in order to mitigate this security risk, several factors should be considered.

Start with a look at a global risk map. There are several companies that specialize in analyzing security risks. Usually, these maps are color coded and give you a first idea of what the types and levels of risk are. If your destination is in a medium- to high-risk area, start to drill deeper.

Ask experts for advice to get a more specific risk analysis. While an entire country may be marked red or yellow in the risk map, many times the threats are very local and specific, and may only affect a certain area. Consulting companies that specialize in international risk analysis will be able to give you very specific and focused advice.

For a fee, these international risk consultants usually also offer subscriptions to a newsletter that focuses on global security threats and risks. In the first week of April, my own company’s newsletter informed us about several incidents. Here are some examples:

1. Israel: Terror attacks in Jordan Valley, Tel Aviv. Rockets fired at Golan Heights. Two British-Israeli sisters were killed, and their mother critically injured, in a terror attack in the northern Jordan Valley when Palestinian gunmen opened fire at the victims’ car, causing it to crash into a boulder.

The attackers then shot the victims again at point-blank range. Several hours after the shooting, an Italian tourist was killed, and 7 others were injured, in a car ramming attack on a promenade in Tel Aviv. Over the weekend, 6 rockets were also fired from Syria at the Golan Heights in 2 separate barrages. No injuries were reported.

US Customs and Border Protection officers conduct a routine interview with a pilot after a flight.

2. Honduras: Authorities extend state of emergency until at least early October. Authorities in Honduras have extended the country’s existing state of emergency (SoE) until at least early October. The SoE initially went into force in late November 2022 for the purpose of combatting organized crime.

3. Mexico: Businessman shot in restaurant, foreign nationals injured in the tourist zone of Mazatlán. According to reports, a gunman entered a restaurant in the tourist zone of Mazatlán and opened fire on a businessman who was dining, gravely injuring him. Three Canadian nationals were injured by shrapnel during the incident.

4. Mexico: Two tourists dead following Acapulco shooting. Two tourists have died and one has been wounded following a shooting near Acapulco, where unknown assailants on motorcycles opened fire on the tourists.

5. Turkey: Localized disruption to be expected during electoral campaign period. The official election campaign period began on 31 March in Turkey. Voters will elect the president, along with members of the national assembly (parliament).

Security at foreign airports

Just like in the US, the foreign airports where we land are usually quite secure environments. Most are fenced in and some kind of government agency or private contractor will continuously monitor access and ensure perimeter security.

However, there is organized crime on airports in some countries. I remember that, in the 1990s, armed robbers were active in the airside cargo area of JNB (Johannesburg, South Africa), stealing valuable cargo directly from parked aircraft. Most likely they had prior knowledge of the shipments. Local police were no match for their speed and guns.

Aircraft operating internationally are also used as vehicles to transport drugs without the knowledge of the operators, especially when they fly back to the US. I know of a case where side panels in the cargo compartment of a Boeing 747 were removed in a foreign country by a mechanic, drugs were placed in those cavities, and were flown back hidden behind the replaced panels to a major US airport.

The other members of this criminal organization employed by a ground handling company removed the drugs and sold them in the US. This kept happening on a weekly basis until US Customs officers finally caught them.

Your parked aircraft may be left alone safely at many airports, but not all. In some countries you may consider hiring your own guards to watch the aircraft at all times, control access, and screen anyone entering the aircraft, including local handling staff such as caterers, cleaners, and loaders.

You may also bring along your own security team, but they take precious seats, may lack deep local knowledge and contacts, and in many cases may not be permitted to carry firearms. A better option could be to bring along only one senior security team member who then works with local contractors.

Always declare the goods you’re carrying and make sure they’re not illegal at the contries you’ll be visiting.

Working with local agents

The best way to find reputable local security teams is through a US- or UK-based international security company that has excellent local contacts.

Many good security team members have a military or law enforcement background in their home country and may still be well connected to government agencies.

This is helpful not only when their security skills are required in a real situation, but also for the many small occasions when someone is needed to fix smaller issues, be they at the immigration counter, or with customs or health authorities.

On my recent arrival in MNL, I followed the published rules stating that no Covid-19 PCR tests were required for entry – just proof of full vaccination status. However, upon arrival, the local official did require a PCR test owing to my status as a crewmember. Our local handler was able to deal with this issue discreetly, and I was permitted to enter the country and go about my business. Good local agents and security people are essential to ensure a smooth operation.

Once the aircraft is well guarded at the destination, and passengers and crew leave the airport, they are now exposed to the realities on the ground. As airline crews in PHC (Port Harcourt, Nigeria), for example, we are regularly escorted by military Jeeps – one in front and one behind our crew bus – manned with heavily-armed soldiers. In the crew bus, there are additional soldiers as we drive to our hotel at night. And, in the hotel, there are armed soldiers  as well, including guards on every floor where the crew rests.

For destinations with a high-risk profile similar to that at PHC for your business jet and passengers, your company should hire local security teams to meet them at the airport and escort passengers and crew while in town.

Finding the right provider

Some countries may require different documentation for passengers and crew members. Local agents can help you sort things out to avoid surprises upon arrival at your destination.

In addition to carrying firearms, some security providers can display flashing blue lights on their vehicles, speeding up their way through heavy traffic. As always, the key is to find the right people.

And it all starts with your own flight department. Make sure that every crew member, mechanic, or staff member who touches the aircraft is thoroughly vetted and trustworthy. Make sure they have no hidden issues at the destination country.

Also, make sure you carry nothing illegal in the luggage or cargo hold. Search the aircraft carefully before each departure. A search checklist with areas of responsibility for each crew member is standard procedure for many operators.

Especially on your way back from a foreign destination, the planting of an explosive device on your aircraft is a realistic event, although it’s a very remote and rare possibility. Contraband, however, may happen more frequently. If requested, security teams usually offer this search as part of their service.

When hiring security teams, listen to expert advice and go for a reputable company with excellent local contacts. Security people have deep access and are very close to the people and assets that they protect. It is absolutely essential that they are 100% trustworthy. Otherwise, the whole security effort may backfire.

Route planning

We live in a time when conflicts are becoming increasingly violent. Civil war and unrest, as well as terrorist and criminal threats, are on the rise in many places. There is war in many countries, including Eastern Europe. The threshold to fatal action seems to be quite low as norms of civil society are violated.

The proliferation of military grade weapons is increasing, and civil aircraft have become targets of attacks – they have been shot at with gunfire and anti-aircraft munitions. As weapons of war are circulating in several areas of the world, the risk of being targeted by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) has been evident for a number of years.

These shoulder-fired missiles have brought down a number of civil aircraft over the past 3 decades, especially in areas of active civil war, but also in seemingly peaceful countries such as Kenya.

Some senior VIP and head-of-state transport aircraft have been outfitted with countermeasures, such as flares, chaff, and targeted laser beams, but these only work for larger transport category aircraft as these installations are quite heavy and expensive, or may not even be available for the civil market.

When planning your route, avoid overflying not only war zones and areas of civil conflicts. Do not rely exclusively on your dispatcher to avoid dangerous areas. Read the newspapers, too. As I prepared for a flight from Frankfurt to India in the summer of 2014, I had to request a rerouted flightplan myself from dispatch, because our flight was planned over eastern Ukraine shortly after the invasion of Crimea.

I remembered that there had been a previous incident in 2001 of a BUK S-200 anti-aircraft missile fired at a civil airliner. The aircraft was shot down over the Black Sea with no survivors.

The reason the dispatcher was able to file a flightplan over the war zone of eastern Ukraine was that the NOTAM for the area was limited to FL290, allowing airliners to overfly and earn overflight fee revenues for the Ukrainian government. Finally, we did receive a new flightplan with a different route, avoiding eastern Ukraine.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from AMS (Amsterdam, Netherlands) to KUL (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) was shot down only 2 weeks later over the same area. This time, all 298 people on board perished.

This is a sad and grim reminder that flying your aircraft internationally may have not only operational, but also serious security challenges. With good planning, preparation, and the assistance of professional security experts, your guardian angels will bring you home safely.

Jörg Peter Berendsen flies Boeing 747s as a captain for Lufthansa. He holds ATP and CFII licenses, and writes regularly for Pro Pilot on aviation-related subjects.