As air travel becomes more restrictive around the globe, the ultra-wealthy are becoming more desperate to get to where they want to be for the crisis.
Small countries are taking extreme measures to halt international travel in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Those accustomed to private jet travel are used to demanding what they want and getting it. As a result, private jet flights escaping from and running to resort countries, such as those in the Caribbean, are currently in high demand—and they do not always occur under the most lawful of circumstances.
The most wealthy among us are trying to get around flight bans with private jet flights as they are desperate to get into or home from Caribbean countries, many of which have partial or full international travel bans. Those with complete bans include Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Partial international travel bans are in effect for Belize, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbados, Saint Lucia, Grenada, and Venezuela. These countries are home to many affluent expatriates. The money some of them spend on private jet flights is staggering. One round trip to Europe in a Gulfstream 550 jet from the United States with five passengers can easily cost the client six figures.
With the world being crippled in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ultra-wealthy still have places to be and airline options are not only becoming restrictive, but they are also dwindling. Rumors currently abound of private jet pilots, both from charter operations and private flight departments, being offered large bonuses to get into and out of Caribbean resort countries undetected and bypassing customs and port of entry requirements. While not impossible, it’s an extremely risky game to play.
Privately owned or chartered aircraft operate on demand, when and where their clients or owners need them. Private jet pilots have a “bag of tricks” that airline pilots don’t, including late-night flights to closed airports, low altitude visual flight rules (VFR) flights, tricks to bypass arrival lines, departing under VFR to avoid lengthy departure routing and many others. And that’s the list of legal options. With so much money on the line, less than reputable private jet operators undoubtedly have a less-than-legal bag of tricks.
Yesterday in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Mayor Cynthia Viteri resorted to stopping flights at Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport by directing that ground vehicles be parked on the runway. The action is alleged to have been taken to stop two airliners, one each from KLM and Iberia, from arriving from Europe. Video footage from a Robinson helicopter has surfaced, overflying the parked vehicles.
It may shock the average person to understand that Ecuador found it necessary to physically block a runway to stop it from being used. However, it wouldn’t shock many in private aviation. Efforts to stop private jet travel are often futile. The War Zone recently documented the rash of drug smuggling operations using private jets in Central and South America. Even the largest international airports in small foreign countries often have no operating control tower in the middle of the night, which is more commonly seen stateside at regional or primary Class D airspace airports.
In cases where the tower is closed, but the airport remains open, pilots use a common traffic advisory frequency to announce their intentions, often with no audience. Some airports are unattended and gates are locked after hours. If you think those who arrive in $10 million jets would never hop a fence at 2 a.m. after securing their aircraft, you’re wrong. Doing so is often perfectly legal, especially if the crew has no choice but to arrive after hours and has a valid reason to be there. Other airports have hours during which aircraft are specifically prohibited from arriving or departing, especially aircraft arriving internationally.
Sneaking into and out of a closed airport stateside is one risk, but the Caribbean, which due to a long and colored legacy of illicit drug trafficking, is no stranger to sketchy flights. The Caribbean waters are littered with abandoned drug-running aircraft.
Unannounced aircraft with no flight plans draw attention from big brother. In recent decades U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reached out to and coordinated with neighboring and Caribbean countries to increase its ability to detect and control illegal border crossings of all kinds. The resulting joint operating plans make it much more difficult to get away with illicit and nefarious flight operations.
On Tuesday of this week, a Hawker jet was detected by Aruba authorities flying suspiciously and at low altitude around the south end of the island. They landed at Aruba airport, which was closed, and were promptly arrested for landing without permission. The crew told authorities during questioning they had landed because of an unspecified fuel problem.
The day before, private jet clients were openly asking in online forums for an operator who’d be willing to pick them up in Aruba to avoid being stuck there during worldwide quarantine efforts and airport closures. There’s no evidence linking the two events, but they speak to the current state of desperation among wealthy passengers. On Thursday of this week, a medevac Learjet landed at LAX after traveling from Aruba with a confirmed COVID-19 patient onboard.
Despite less oversight, private jet flights are still subject to port of entry requirements and resulting scrutiny. As of Saturday, Chub Cay was taking every single person’s temperature. Temperatures of 99.9 degrees and higher were refused entry. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation issued a statement on March 16th, asserting that while only one confirmed case of COVID-19 exists in Nassau, they reserve the right to institute further measures to minimize the spread of illness. Effective March 19th, anyone from or who had traveled through the United Kingdom, Ireland and mainland Europe in the last 20 days will be prohibited entry.
The circumstances and difficulties the aviation world is facing may get much direr. It’s not outside of one’s imagination to see a temporary total ban on civil aviation flights in the United States if the situation continues to deteriorate. In the meantime, private jet travel will remain the best bet when it comes to escaping to one location or another for the most affluent in our society, and for some, this is even the case if the law says otherwise.
The author is a 5,000-hour Airline Transport Pilot and Commercial Helicopter Pilot, type rated in private jets, with over a decade’s experience managing and flying private aircraft. He has a wide breadth of experience in aviation, having flown people from all backgrounds into and out of everything from small mountain airstrips to large international airports.