‘Pre-clearance’ security process suspended at UK airports

 - March 20, 2009, 4:36 AM

Passengers arriving on business aircraft at UK airports may face delays in clearing immigration, following a move by the UK Border Agency to withdraw the so-called pre-clearance process. This allowed FBOs to simply give officials passenger lists for flights with nationality details and leave it to them to decide whether or not they wished to personally inspect passports.

Now, according to several London-area FBOs, handlers are obliged to take passports to Border Agency officers in the main terminal buildings of airports, while their customers wait to be allowed entry into the UK. Sean Raftery, managing director of Universal Aviation UK, confirmed that pre-clearance has been suspended. However, he maintained that at London Stansted Airport, where Universal has its own FBO, immigration officers still are permanently present in the business aviation terminal from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Outside these hours, passenger passports have to be taken to the main terminal which is on the other side of the airport and several miles away.

The UK Border Agency refused to give details of its new procedures. Speaking at the British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA) conference at St. Albans on March 3, Border Agency attorney Levent Altan told delegates that the government wants to work more closely with the business aviation communities and reward FBOs that they consider to have proven security procedures. “We recognize that most [general aviation] users are not involved in criminality,” he said. “However, the freedoms that make [security] controls difficult are the freedoms that make flying attractive, and we need to get the balance right. We must strengthen controls while still making it easy to comply.”

Altan insisted that the Border Agency wants to work toward allowing greater flexibility in its dealings with general aviation, while also being mindful of the impact of the recession on businesses. However, privately FBO managers at the conference told AIN that they becoming extremely frustrated at what they regard as an uncooperative and intransigent attitude on the part of the Border Agency regarding immigration processes and other security issues.

‘Ruthless restrictions’
Giving the keynote address at the BBGA conference, Lord Carlile–a member of the UK’s House of Lords and an independent advisor to the government on security–warned the business aviation community that it will face “ruthless restrictions,” unless it can prove that it is doing everything possible to ensure security. Carlile, who in 2001 referred to general aviation as the “soft under-belly” of homeland security, reminded operators that their directors face the prospect of serious criminal prosecution, if they are found to be negligent on security. He advised that all passengers and crew, who are traveling on aircraft with mtows of up to 15 metric tons (33,068 pounds), should be subject to security screening.

“I hope that all BBGA members have a security manual including all European legislation [including the latest EC2320 rules],” the senior attorney cautioned. “Failure to comply can result in criminal prosecution even for manslaughter in the event of terrorist attack. You need to ensure that you can positively identify everyone who gets on your aircraft. You need to check and record who the passengers are.” He predicted that “Jihadist terrorism will be with us for at least another generation” and said that the possibility of a business jet being hijacked to be used as a weapon could not be ruled out.

At the same time, Lord Carlile criticized security officials from Britain’s Department for Transport (DfT) for failing to participate in the conference. “The presence of the UK Border Agency at smaller airports remains limited due to lack of resources and imagination and is at a primitive phase,” he commented.

“Airline rules don’t need to be forced on business aviation, but only if business aviation follows the rules and procedures that keep us as safe from terrorism as is possible,” he concluded. “Any exceptions will mean an end to the holiday on this. Much of the persuasion has to come from you. Transec [the security division of the DfT] is there to represent the public interest, and we expect them to be risk averse. You as an industry must convince national and European authorities that your procedures can take the burden from them.”