As part of its responsibility to monitor developments in the threat from organised crime and terrorism in Europe, Europol has recently identified an expansion in the range of illicit commodities being trafficked using light aircraft.
In the past, organised crime groups have mainly used small airplanes for trafficking drugs into and around the European Union (EU). However, there has been a noted rise in the use of light aircraft for trafficking drugs into the EU (e.g. from North and West Africa), and the number of suspicious flights between EU Member States is also increasing. In addition to drugs, though, light aircraft are also now being used to facilitate illegal immigration, smuggle victims of human trafficking, and to traffic firearms, diamonds and bulk cash shipments for money laundering.
For example, from North Africa, organised crime groups make regular trips (e.g. 50 kg loads) that target small airfields in remote parts of South West Europe. They specialise in ‘low and slow’ flights under radio silence to avoid detection. The commodities are delivered by ‘air drops’ and landings at remote airstrips and agricultural fields. Privately–owned fields are often exploited for logistical purposes
All kinds of small airplanes, from utility aircraft to executive jets, are being used to traffic illicit commodities into Europe and between the EU’s criminal hubs, with helicopters also used in Western Europe. The majority of these aircraft are EU registered, but many are also registered in the US and, in some cases, African countries. EU nationals are also known to acquire pilot licences from non–EU countries. However, more than half of EU countries do not have provisions to withdraw pilot licenses in cases of convictions related to organised crime (e.g. drugs trafficking).
Organised crime groups engaged in these activities tend to have a clear division of tasks (e.g. ground handling, overland transportation, security or asset owners). They usually have strategies to exploit opportunities in non–commercial aviation such as inconsistencies between European flight plan regulations.
A key facilitator for this rise in the use of light aircraft for trafficking is the lack of monitoring and sanctions vis–à–vis the significant volume in light aircraft traffic that impacts on hundreds of small airstrips across the EU.
A call for an EU information network, as mentioned within the framework of Project Avia, with participants from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK, is highly justified (Project Avia is a European network established to combat the use of small airfields for criminal purposes). The network should include partners in civil aviation and the military that can provide access to key resources, like suspicious activity reports, general aviation databases and tracking/surveillance capabilities.
Drawing on the findings and contributions of national experts, the main recommendations are:
- Coordinated high–impact operations that target small airfields based on risk profiling and existing initiatives.
- A review of the legislation and sanctions that govern general aviation, in particular, to improve the EU–wide requirements governing the submission of flight plans.
- The creation of an EU–level coordination capability for reporting, tracking and analysing suspicious light aircraft traffic that draws on existing national initiatives such as the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee’s Intelligence Centre Aviation, which has developed an indicator system to flag suspicious flight plans.
- Exchange of best practice between national specialists (e.g. using the Europol Platform of Experts) related, for instance, to the use of military assets such as the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) in support of law enforcement operations.