“If there's money to be made, business will go there.” And if it's a dangerous place, you'd better do your homework and have a true exit strategy.
Use a Handling Service
And of course, contract with a handling service to support flight planning and arrange visas and permits, airport servicing, hotel reservations, ground transportation, liaison with local authorities and serve as yet another resource on the ground at the destination.
“If a business aviation operator is going to plan a flight into a potentially hazardous area, the first thing is to get a good handling agent - do not go until you have that arranged so you have someone meet you there who knows the territory,” advised Dan Manningham.
Long-time BCA readers may remember Manningham's many articles on safety and pilot technique, liberally peppered with relevant quotes from literature. (“I was an English major before I began my aviation career,” he explained.) Since his retirement fromas a captain, Manningham has volunteered his services as a pilot and safety auditor for NGOs operating in various hotspots around the world and has written about some of those experiences for us (“Letter From Kabul,” February, March and April 2003).
Choosing to hire guards to protect the aircraft is always a risky proposition without proper vetting, which can be arranged either by the handling agency or the operator's security resource. Whoever is qualifying the guard service should determine that it is licensed and insured, that the guards are properly trained and that the operation has a good reputation locally. (Again, being able to obtain an endorsement from operators who've used the service in the past is helpful.) When LeBlanc's company does this, “we don't use the cheapest one in town,” he said.
While some operators may consider carrying armed security agents aboard the aircraft on trips to dangerous places to protect the passengers, more than one source for this report offered a caveat regarding this practice. “There's an important caution here,” said LeBlanc, “since it's never a good idea to carry firearms, either handguns or hunting rifles, into sensitive countries, especially ones where cabin inspections might be conducted. If your onboard security is armed and not properly licensed at the destination country or even a fuel stop somewhere, they can be arrested.” This is why companies like FrontierMEDEX arrange locally based armed aircraft guards and executive protection agents to augment any unarmed security that an operator may have.
And here's another perspective on carrying weapons from an aviation manager employed by a government contractor with extensive aviation and security experience in hotspots throughout the world: “[I]t is vitally important for the security people to be familiar with the country they're working in. When you go in there, you need to know what the ramifications and culture are. You will need a permit from the local authorities to carry a weapon. If you have to go through a checkpoint when you get off the airplane and if the PSD [personal security detail] guy has a weapon and no permit to carry it there, he may be detained for up to three weeks. So the PSD people need to understand the local laws. Check this with the RSO at the embassy before you depart for the country. We are tied at the hip with the RSOs at our company, but they can't help you if they don't know you're there.”
Then the av manager related a chilling story. “In 2010, a contractor operating in Afghanistan was running a training scenario on the street with a couple 'hard' [armored] cars, and one of them hit an Afghan car and killed four people. The Afghans on the street then began pouring gasoline on the cars. The contractor's security agents made a decision to get out of the car without weapons, and it probably saved their lives. If you pull a weapon and you shoot somebody, then the whole dynamic changes. If that detail shoots an Afghan, they're going to jail, and the executives they're supposed to be protecting may be jailed, as well.”
In volatile locations like this, the question of whether to guard the aircraft in place or reposition it must be considered. “Concerning the latter option,” LeBlanc said, “the aircraft serves at the behest of the passengers, and now we're moving the aircraft somewhere else. If we move, we imply that the aircraft and crew are more valuable than the passengers. If things become like Cairo [in 2011], we will have challenges in getting the aircraft back in. So what we recommend in this case is to plan your schedule so you're arriving early in the morning to allow the passengers to conduct their business, and then leave in the afternoon.
“When you're looking at mitigating the risk to the crew and passengers,” LeBlanc continued, “you have to have several plans; this is one option. We've even had executive clients who conduct their meetings on board the aircraft. Another option is to have the meeting at a hotel near the airport. What you want to do is mitigate the exposure to hazard. Still another option is to hire an executive protection team with armored vehicles for the passengers, at least two armed agents per vehicle, and leading and following vehicles, but this can cost as much as $20,000 a day. If you're looking at high-risk locations with threats like IEDs, large-caliber weapons and so forth, having protection without armored vehicles is a waste of money. The protection plan should meet or exceed the threat - it's basic Security 101. Be prepared, do your homework, get your intel right, and build your plan from there.”