NBAA Convention News

Irish business jet seized in drug bust

 - November 6, 2006, 11:17 AM

A Cessna Citation VI owned by a prominent Irish businessman was caught up in a major drug bust on September 26, when Belgian police impounded the aircraft at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport and arrested its crew. More than 110 pounds of heroin (valued at $13 million) was seized as an undisclosed passenger tried to board the jet at Kortrijk, which is close to the border with France. The aircraft had just flown in from Weston Executive Airport, eight miles from the Irish capital, Dublin.

The Citation VI is owned by Irish billionaire Jim Mansfield, whose businesses include several prominent hotels and golf courses. He also owns Weston Executive Airport.

The aircraft is registered to one of Mansfield’s subsidiary companies, Lonborough Aviation. It is privately operated by National Flight Centre (NFC), which runs a flight school and aircraft management business at Weston.

According to a spokesman for Mansfield, the entrepreneur had no knowledge that the Citation was being flown out of Ireland on the day of the arrests. He said that an undisclosed third party had approached NFC asking to borrow the jet because its aircraft was out of service and emphasized that the flight was not made on a commercial charter or lease basis. He added that such an arrangement was fairly commonplace, with the understanding that the third party would reciprocate the favor for NFC.

The two NFC pilots were first due to appear in a Belgian court on September 29, and, as of October 3, they had not been released. They have denied any involvement in the alleged drug trafficking and asked to be allowed to return to Ireland with the aircraft, which has been impounded by police. NFC would make no further comment about the case.

On October 2, after being formally charged with conspiracy to import controlled drugs, 36-year-old John Kinsella was denied bail by Dublin District Court. The court ruled that the Irish citizen, a charter broker, had access to and/or owned private aircraft and that, as such, there was a risk he would flee the country.

Kinsella, a former Irish super-heavyweight boxing champion, denied that he owned private aircraft and said that he had signed away any such ownership when he had transferred his shareholding in a company called Transtec Commerce. According to Irish police, Kinsella owned property in Thailand and had large assets at his disposal. As of press time, it had yet to be confirmed whether he was the third party who arranged to borrow Mansfield’s Citation VI from NFC.

Demands for Tighter Controlsat Small Airports

The case prompted immediate demands in the Irish parliament for tighter customs controls at small airports such as Weston. As with many other smaller airports around Europe, there is no permanent customs agency presence at Weston.

Aircraft operators are obliged to notify customs and immigration of any international flights, but the officials generally opt to inspect passengers in person only if they include holders of passports from outside the 25-state European Union. In fact, an alleged lack of passport screening and security measures at private airports in Ireland and other countries was one of the reasons the Irish police cited in their request that the Dublin District Court should deny bail to Kinsella.

The Weston spokesman said that the Irish airport was not responsible for the situation, because the attempt to take drugs on board the aircraft had happened in Kortrijk. He said that Mansfield has invested a substantial sum on advanced security screening equipment for Weston, including systems for detecting narcotics. In a statement, the businessman argued that it is the state’s responsibility to provide adequate customs protection, and he dismissed as unfounded claims that the airport constitutes a security risk.

For business aircraft operators, Weston is an attractive alternative to Dublin International Airport. A week before the arrest, it had received much of the traffic bringing spectators to the area for the Ryder Cup golf tournament at the nearby K Club.