Business Jet
Photo Mark Wagner

Your Flight Operations Might Not Be as Secure as You Think

Often-overlooked factors can endanger crews and passengers.

Your business, home, and cars all have security systems in place. But how secure are your airplane and flight operations? 

“We fly and we work now in an environment where there are a lot of security risks—to our people, our information, and our aircraft,” counseled Dallas attorney Greg Reigel. “Security is a team sport, and everyone needs to be working together,” he said, noting that “everyone” includes a company’s flight, information technology, human resources, and security departments.

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The first step is developing a security plan and regularly updating it. “A plan that was good two years ago probably doesn’t incorporate everything it should,” Reigel said, noted the rapid pace of change. “Today we have advanced aircraft with [internet] connectivity, and the aircraft is connected to the company.” That makes it not only a physical target but a target for hackers seeking a backdoor into a business’s executive suite.

“The aircraft is an extension of the office,” said corporate pilot Greg Kulis, who is also a security auditor for the International Standard for Business Aviation Operations (IS-BAO). A good security plan is “proportional to the threat against the operator, the personnel, the operation, and the facilities.” While acknowledging that “one size [plan] doesn’t fit all,” he said that “each flight operation, no matter the size, should have a security coordinator who facilitates communications with corporate security and flight operations.” 

Kulis said a good aviation security policy has administrative and operational components. It includes personnel screening, security training, securing flight and personnel information, and maintaining a secure aircraft facility at home and safety on the road via access procedures, cameras, alarms, and other technology. 

Among items often overlooked in security planning, according to Kulis: 

Food Security

Food poisoning at 41,000 feet, especially among the flight crew, can obviously have a serious impact on safety. “Food security doesn’t get enough attention,” Kulis said. “Where is the catering coming from and who is delivering it? How is it being stored? Is there a [paper] trail that follows the food from preparation to refrigeration to delivery?” 

Baggage Identification

 The common practice of passengers sending their bags to the FBO ahead of their arrival can create a myriad of security issues. “I know of a case where a [wrong] bag was loaded onto an aircraft at an FBO and transported across the country,” said Kulis. “The aircraft was carrying the CEO of a large company, and the suitcase was not theirs. It was discovered in the cabin during the flight and no one knew how it got aboard.” 

Kulis said the company he flies for requires that if bags have been out of a passenger’s control, the passenger must open them and reconfirm their contents at the FBO prior to their being loaded onto the aircraft. He conceded that the policy can slow departures and annoy some passengers but emphasized that it is an integral part of the business’s security system. 

Containment Bags

 Another policy that’s important but not always popular with passengers requires them to store portable devices with lithium-ion batteries in fire-safe containment bags. 

Fuel Reserves

 Carrying extra fuel to a destination—enough to be able to leave quickly in an emergency and fly at least one country over—can often mean an extra stop en route but can provide critical insurance. “If you can’t use the aircraft for evacuation, if you can’t get fuel to it, it adds to your security concerns,” Kulis said. 

He illustrated the point by describing a flight he made to Athens, Greece, in July 2016, during the attempted coup in Turkey. Commercial flights were rerouted to Athens during the unrest, tripling the normal traffic there, and business jets couldn’t get fuel. “Fortunately, we had the reserves to go somewhere else,” Kulis said. 

Ground Security

 “Chances are, if something bad happens to you on a trip, it’s going to happen during ground transportation, whether it be an auto accident or a criminal act,” Kulis noted. “When it comes to criminal activity, your highest-risk segment is from the FBO to the hotel. The reason for that is that your ground-transportation providers have an enormous amount of information. They know who you are and where you are coming from. They know that you are coming off a U.S.-based aircraft, what hotel you are going to, and how long you will be staying there. You know virtually nothing about them, and you are turning over your environmental control to them entirely.” 

Kulis said business jet passengers should use only vetted ground-transportation providers and should have on-the-ground safety plans that include prearranged meeting places, exchange of hotel-room numbers, and use of cell-phone tracking apps such as Worldcue Mobile.