FBOs put in a tough spot

 - January 21, 2008, 9:09 AM

David Newcomb, managing director of London Gatwick Airport FBO Interflight, spelled out to delegates at the recent UK GAMTA conference how facilities like his are increasingly finding themselves on the front line of the campaign to counter terrorism and illegal immigration.

In September, Interflight received a booking for handling from a Russian executive charter firm operating a Dassault Falcon 20. The operator said the jet would be arriving with eight passengers on board. When the door opened, 11 men, women and children disembarked with no baggage.

When the passengers reached the immigration control point at Gatwick, several ran into the toilets and destroyed their passports (a classic tactic employed by people seeking to apply for asylum in the UK). The group was subsequently found to be from Afghanistan and did indeed initiate an asylum application the next morning.

The problem for Newcomb and his team was that handling agents can be liable for fines of $3,200 per passenger if UK authorities believe they did not take steps to properly identify arriving passengers and verify their immigration status. With this in mind, Newcomb asked the Gatwick officials to detain the aircraft until the matter could be resolved, but they refused. He did manage to persuade the Russian crew to stay until the next morning, by which time he had taken legal advice.

Eventually, Newcomb was able to convince the authorities that Interflight should not be held responsible for the situation. However, he complained of poor organization and communication on the part of the various UK agencies involved and warned that it is all too easy for FBOs to find themselves being duped by unscrupulous operators and travel agents.

Other FBO managers at the GAMTA meeting said that they are aware of at least three other recent attempts to use business aircraft to bring people illegally into the UK. Ian Clark, a partner with London law firm Clark Ricketts, said it is vital for operators and handling agents to be able to provide hard evidence that they took “sufficient care” to guard against illegal immigration.