EBACE Convention News

Drug smuggling case calls for tighter security

 - May 11, 2007, 6:30 AM

How would you feel if criminals tried to use your aircraft for international drug smuggling, dragging you and your company into a long-running legal drama?  Irish businessman Jim Mansfield knows exactly how this feels.

Last year his Cessna Citation VI was raided by Belgian police and his two pilots were thrown in jail for almost a month. The alleged drug smugglers have yet to face trial, but the furor over how Mansfield’s aircraft came to be used by them has prompted tough questioning by politicians about security standards at smaller general aviation airports in Europe.

On Sept. 26, 2006, Belgian police impounded Mansfield’s Citation at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport and arrested the crew. They seized more than 110 pounds of heroin (valued at $13 million) as a passenger tried to board the jet at Kortrijk. The aircraft had flown in from Weston Executive Airport, which is owned by Mansfield, a billionaire hotel-and-golf-course entrepreneur.

The case prompted immediate demands in the Irish parliament for tighter customs controls at small airports such as Weston, which like many other smaller European airports, has no permanent customs agents.

It became clear in late January that Irish authorities had never approved Weston for international flights–apart for those to and from Britain. The airport has since applied for port-of-entry status. The Irish justice department is currently considering the application, but in the meantime, international flights have to clear customs and immigration at Dublin International Airport prior to arrival at Weston.

According to The Irish Times, Weston unofficially handled between 600 and 800 international flights in the previous three years. It is an attractive alternative to Dublin International for business aircraft operators. A week before the drug seizure, it had temporary clearance to receive international flights and handled a lot of traffic bringing spectators to the Ryder Cup.

The seized Citation 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 a third party, which was unidentified, had approached NFC asking to borrow the jet because its aircraft was out of service and  emphasized that the flight was not being 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 police held the two NFC pilots, who denied any involvement in the alleged drug trafficking, in custody for more than three weeks and impounded the Citation for the same period. The pilots were allowed to fly the airplane back to Ireland on October 24 after bail payments of around $200,000 each. The fines were levied despite the fact that the Belgian prosecutors concluded that neither the pilots nor Mansfield knew of the plan to transport drugs. The pilots must appear in court when the alleged drug traffickers go on trial.

The chief suspect behind the plot is John Kinsella, who is now in prison awaiting trial. In October, the Dublin District Court ruled that Kinsella, an Irish citizen who is a private charter broker, had access to and/or owned private aircraft and there was a risk he would flee the country. Kinsella denied that he owned private aircraft and said he had signed away such ownership when he transferred his shareholding in a company called Transtec Commerce.

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

Mansfield’s spokesman told EBACE Convention News that Weston Executive Airport was not responsible for the situation because the attempt to take drugs on board the aircraft had occurred in Kortrijk. He said Mansfield has invested a substantial sum in 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.