A growing but unwelcome demand for private aviation

The EU’s police organisation Europol has been aware for some time that small aircraft were being used to smuggle drugs, both within and across EU borders. In its annual Organised Crime report last month, it reported a notable rise in the use of private aircraft to facilitate illegal immigration, smuggle victims of human trafficking, and to traffic firearms, diamonds and bulk cash shipments for money laundering.

Many of these trips are now apparently being made between North Africa and locations in south west Europe. The flights are difficult to detect; flying in under radio silence, light aircraft and helicopters can access a huge variety of remote and impromptu air strips. These appear to be highly organised operations, with cargo swiftly dispersed after disembarkation.

Other inbound trips are coming from further afield. In January, Spanish authorities in Barcelona seized an executive jet from Argentina this month that was carrying about 2,000 pounds of cocaine. The operator is an Argentine company, Medical Jet, which specialises in private medical transfers. Argentine military officials and politicians may have been involved, and deeper connections link to Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.

Until now, EU authorities have struggled to address the opportunity for this kind of exploitation. Much of this derives from inconsistent general aviation regulation and monitoring and sanctions, state to state. More than half EU members, for example, do not withdraw pilot licences following a drugs conviction.

In response, the EU is looking to create a more centralised response. Through project AVIA, Belgium, France, Netherlands and the UK will share intelligence on high risk profile airstrips. There are recommendations to review and upgrade flight monitoring and sanctions, as well as to improve intelligence sharing between military and civil aviation.

Europol will no doubt be impatient for actions to follow committees, reviews and recommendations. The problem is that besides the obvious challenge of coordinating multiple crime agencies across 27 states, the business aviation industry is heterogenous to say the least; over 800 independent operators manage Europe’s fleet of 2,000 aircraft, which fly over 600,000 sectors each year. What’s more, many of these aircraft (obviously the helicopters) can land in thousands of locations.

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