Political stability and a growing economy are drawing business aircraft into this vibrant, mountainous country.
The Security Issue
No discussion about Colombia today can proceed without touching on the subject of security, given the country's difficult and threatening past. As already noted, airport security in Colombia appears to be excellent. “We very rarely consider hiring guards at the places we go to,” Lazear said. “At Medellin, we parked across from the airport police station. Bogotá is a lot like Mexico, in that there are several layers of checkpoints you have to go through even to get to the FBO, so I had no concerns.”
But ask someone who lives there. “Starting about 12 years ago and continuing today,” the locally based business aviation pilot affirmed, “the drug business has been brought largely under control. Stay out of the ghettos, as you would anywhere. In the city centers there are good hotels. Airports are very safe with lots of security police. Each airport has private security and local police operating simultaneously. You can hire guards, but it's really not necessary.”
According to Lazear, who was born in Colombia, the son of missionaries, the country has vastly changed for the better. “I lived there prior to the drug and guerrilla activity. On the recent trips, I could feel the changes there, thanks to the former president. By and large, the country is safer than Mexico. As far as off-airport, we had arranged transportation at Medellin into the city [on a recent trip], as there aren't too many hotels near the airport. As it turned out, our car was a bullet-proof SUV! We stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel and walked around in the neighborhood and felt completely safe. It has really changed dramatically.
“We did our due diligence with our security department,” he continued, “and our people had a fabulous time visiting coffee plantations in the interior. The economy is booming and there's a lot of business there. The coastal towns are neat, as well.”
The unnamed U.S. pilot told BCA that security was a major consideration to his operation the first time he had to fly the company jet to Colombia, or as he put it, “How much a target you are arriving with an N-numbered aircraft.” He advised operators to check the U.S.website as part of their preflight planning for a trip to Colombia.
“On the ground,” he reminisced, “we asked the handler to provide us with an armored car, but it seemed relatively safe downtown where we stayed. Every main building you went by had a very serious guard at the door equipped with a sidearm. We did walk around as a crew for dinners, but when we went sightseeing, the handler provided a car with an armed bodyguard. There are areas you don't want to wander in, although things have significantly changed for the better.”
Use restaurants recommended by your handler or hotel, he further advised. “The guards at the restaurants wanted to know who we were before they let us in. At the hotel entrance, guards would look under the cars and conduct personal screening before allowing us into the lobby.”
But while the FARC may — repeat, may — be assimilating into Colombian society and the cocaine and heroin cartels possibly — repeat, possibly — are being brought under control and eliminated, criminal acts against foreigners can still occur. Colt's Dixon cited a recent case: “A couple of Spanish tourists were kidnapped in the north near the Venezuela border in late May. The FARC has denied they did it, and it seems to be an isolated incident involving visitors simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time. A ransom has been requested.”
On the other hand, Dixon maintained, Colombia remains “a standout country” in regarding improvements in security. “It has changed tremendously in terms of stamping out corruption, in part due to the U.S. government enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). All this is good for business.” Nevertheless, he said, “One of our clients that moves about through the country hires security for the aircraft and passengers.”
But Katha House had the last word: “In just about every city in the world, the only thing that makes the news is the bad stuff. So it is with Colombian cities. Consequently, I recommend to you that you have to listen to the locals to understand what's really going on. My Colombian friends say that since the Boston Marathon bombing, they're more afraid to fly to American cities than remain in Colombia ones.”