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Desperately Seeking Security

Desperately Seeking Security

Apr 27, 2007

All schedulers and dispatchers build experience by encountering new situations and learning to deal with them; it's the daily bread of the flight-planner's profession. But learning by doing with a multi-million-dollar aircraft, its crew and your company's executives allows no leeway for making serious mistakes or errors in judgment. And securing all three assets during a trip into some parts of the world that are currently adjudged to be high-risk is not something that can be left to chance.

The perennial problem S&D pros encounter the first time out on an international flight of this kind is that there's no Ghostbusters, Inc. out there to answer the question "Who ya gonna call?" Look up "security" in the yellow pages and you'll find a list of people selling burglar alarms. Search the Internet and you'll find pretty much the same thing with a leavening of software companies that will protect your computer. The NBAA lists more than 70 "security" firms in its products and services directory, which is available online; but the overwhelming majority of companies listed don't have security as their primary focus. The International Association of Professional Security Consultants will point you toward one of its members in the "airports" industry, but that's as close as it gets.

There is one professional association in Washington, D.C. -- the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) -- that acts as a central informational clearinghouse and certificating organization, with emphasis on facilities, security forces such as guards, and information (computer) security. ASIS claims 34,000 members, and its Buyer's Guide lists a handful of firms that specialize in aviation. But if you are a scheduler or dispatcher with a flight department of even modest size, chances are that security providers will, sooner or later, come to you. In fact, two leaders in the industry -- ASI Group and FAM International -- exhibited and co-presented at a break-out session on the subject of security at the recent NBAA Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference in Phoenix. ASI Group is linked with Air Routing International, while FAM is closely tied to Universal Weather & Aviation. But what if you can't wait around for one to turn up?

Security professionals who specialize in aviation say the flight department's first call should not be outside, but inside, with its own company's chief security officer and staff -- assuming you know who they are. "One of the things we have been preaching for over 10 years," says Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of ASI Group, "is to have a strong relationship between corporate security and the flight department." He says that post-9/11, most companies big enough to operate aircraft have their own security departments, and security staffs in general have become more involved in the aviation activity. "If you don't have your own department or if security does not have a strong relationship with the flight department, then the next best thing is to have a reputable resource that offers information and services that can help support you."

When he first got into business aviation, he says he had no idea "that corporate jets can do what they do." His first S&D conference was more than 10 years ago. "We had it in a ballroom with 20 exhibitors," he recalls. "I'm sitting there talking with a few senior schedulers and dispatchers who'd been at it for years, and I quickly realized how much they have on their plates. Coordinate it . . . gotta get it done now . . . and 15,000 things are going on at the same time."

LeBlanc has a background in the commercial airlines and law enforcement along with 14 years under his belt with ASI and notes that the questions he hears from a new scheduler or dispatcher contacting his firm for the first time are almost always about intelligence.

"'I'm taking the CEO to São Paulo,'" LeBlanc says, emulating the callers. "'What do we need to be worried about?' Well, that could mean a thousand things."

ASI started out in 1989 as Air Security International, providing intelligence focused on international destinations and threats: "All the things you have to face when you're parking somewhere," he says. "What's the reality on the ground?" Soon ASI realized that it was doing a great job of pointing out problem areas, but offering no solutions. LeBlanc recalls one example: "We'd tell you, 'Don't take the cabs.' So then what do I do?" Today ASI offers a wide range of support services in close coordination with Air Routing International.

And in talking about the "operational" side -- the part that provides special cars, trained drivers, guards -- LeBlanc cautions flight department staffs: Intelligence gathering and dissemination in the form of risk assessments and trip briefings must be separated by a strict firewall from operations. "Take the example where intelligence comes up with a threat -- don't use the taxis -- but operations can't counter that threat. If there's no separation between the two, the danger is that the intelligence could be degraded." He points out that there are airports where private aircraft security is not allowed yet the intelligence recommends it. "The only way it can be done is to arrange it on the side," he says. "Where the ability to service a threat or counter it is a problem, you have to inform the client." But a vendor should never water down the risk assessment.

Brian Leek is the CEO and a founder of FAM International and an 18-year security veteran who got his training in the military and his start in the business providing security for high-profile personalities in the music industry. Like many of his peers, he was basically a one-man show, with a list of international clients. FAM started out as a kind of loose federation of such individuals, but in 2001, Leek bought out the rest of the partners, and FAM today is the preferred vendor for Universal Weather & Aviation and works closely with its trip coordination and tracking staff. "We work hand in hand, and we're notified of schedules and any changes," Leek says.

FAM also serves charter operators and individual client firms, and executive protection is still the company's core service, Leek says; it was the focus when he joined the company in 1997. "We had teams looking after the CEO. Going into some locations the aircraft was a very vulnerable part of the security plan, so part of the plan was to have the airplane guarded so we wouldn't need to go back and sweep it," he says. That led the company into the aviation business.

He seconds the advice that says start planning with your own security organization but notes: "Some flight departments say [of security] 'It's not my job.' Some people push back against in-house security. But it is their job. Security is everyone's responsibility these days." It's a different era, Leek says. "You've got to be more aware of your surroundings. If something doesn't look right, it probably isn't."

Leek says he's seen the full spectrum of links between the flight department and company security, from a CSO with total responsibility for aviation to others where there's no connection -- which mystifies him. "To me it's a match made in heaven," he says. "The jet itself is secure, and that security outweighs the time factor [in business travel]."

Leek is one of many experts who cite the State Department's own traveler advisory sites as a first resource, especially the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), an organization founded in 1985 during the tenure of George Shultz as secretary of state. Unlike ASI, with roots in intelligence, FAM has no online intelligence service. "I prefer to stay away from intelligence," Leek says. He'd rather provide specific assessments, for a given airport, for example. But FAM taps intelligence in the context of the trip it's assessing. And part of that process is knowing in detail the client's purpose for the trip. "Are they downsizing, laying off 5,000 people? That would bring additional risks. And some companies are branded as American, so a destination in the Middle East may add risk." In addition to OSAC, FAM uses iJET, a private intelligence provider specializing in aviation.

David Solo is Universal Weather & Aviation's security consultant. Don't let the word "consultant" fool you, though; he's a full-time employee with wide-ranging responsibilities, all anchored in security, and any Universal staffer can call him with a question. He's also used to dealing with S&D personnel who are new to the challenges. "Just about every day, I talk to people who are going [overseas to a high-risk destination] for the first time," he says. "My advice is to use your resources. It's my responsibility to have that Rolodex, not yours. It's not a new dispatcher's responsibility to know the whole world. Network with your [S&D] colleagues," he advises, "and get your corporate security department involved."

Solo points to the patient process of vetting providers as the heartbeat of security. "It means knowing you're getting good people," he says. "We vet through FAM and also our own in-country rep. We might look at two companies and if they're using different people we'll want to know why. We look at their size and their reputation along with the resources to pull contacts together." Because the aviation segment is fairly small, word of mouth plays a big part in the vetting process.

Johan Selle is the director of operations for iJET Intelligent Risks Systems and a veteran military intelligence officer in South Africa who joined the Annapolis, Md., firm around the time it was formed in 2000. He says the client list today numbers around 400. When it opened its doors in April 2001, iJET's intent was to provide information to leisure travelers, but the company quickly shifted its sights to the corporate market, covering environmental, health and political factors and expanding its mission from travel risk management to asset risk management, including aircraft, crews and passengers. The firm linked with ARINC Direct in 2005 as a provider for flight support clients. iJET accesses open sources such as OSAC as well as embassies, both U.S. and others, to develop its intelligence assessments.

Selle's advice to S&D staffers is to "step back a bit and ask oneself and the company, 'Where does my role begin and end?' And 'Is this something we do in house or turn to professionals?'" It pays, he says, to understand the client company, knowing who they are and their "appetite for risk." He's seen all flavors, from zero-tolerance "I wouldn't even think about it" to more experienced adventurers like the oil exploration industry, which routinely travels to the narrow, tapered ends of civilization.

"Intelligence does not begin and end with security," he reminds flight department staffers. "A transportation strike can disrupt travel more than the risk of a kidnapping." He ticks off a list of nightmares: "Major storm . . . environmental issues . . . entry/exit requirements." And he likes to establish good relations with the client CSO while he gets to know the company's insurance coverage, health concerns ("Will the boss need medication?") and any medical evacuation services under contract.

While most security companies provide some form of intelligence, Selle cautions, "They're selling a service, so they will sell you two armored vehicles and six guys with guns. So know who you're talking to and that they sell a service. It's something you learn over the years with experience," he says. The absence of a sanctioning body means S&D professionals "need to learn the value of networking," Selle says. "Reach out to others and get help from those who've done it before. You need executive protection services in Hong Kong; you call five of the top firms and they're all using the same guy in Hong Kong. You've been operating into Milan, so you know the people there well, and now you're going to Istanbul. Call Milan and ask who they use in Istanbul.

"You can point out that instead of going to downtown Bogotá for a meeting, they can have the meeting aboard the aircraft." By taking off and flying around for a couple of hours, the aircraft and the people at the meeting avoid the threats they would encounter on the ground. "Walk in their shoes," Selle advises.

iJET provides either the dispatcher or crew with a trip brief, which can be just a security overview or cover perhaps 10 categories such as transport, health, communications, culture, entry/exit and financial/legal -- all in six to eight pages. A detailed country briefing of any of 184 nations may run to 20 or 30 pages and all are deliverable via a Web-based platform or e-mail. The company registers and tracks pilots in its system and knows where they all are. "We don't need to know the passengers except in some cases," Selle says.

ASI's LeBlanc says security "is not brain surgery. Get a list of the threats. Get another list of measures you can use to counter threats. It could be a procedure. It could be communication in a given region is weak, so the security counter is being able to equip the crew with satellite phones. Our job will always be to provide the resource to match the threats they face. We neutralize the threats to a point where it's as if the airplane never left its home hangar."

Countermeasures vary, he says. "We wouldn't recommend an aircraft guard in London. It would be different if it were Lagos, Nigeria, where the recommendations start to sound like a high threat: aircraft guard, secure transport and an executive protection team for the principal. But that's still different from calling a provider of these services and asking 'What should I do?' because they'll sell you services even if you don't need them."

ASI Group issues a daily update -- "Hotspots" that anyone can subscribe to on its home page. Its snapshots of the day's events, broken down regionally, convey information unavailable through normal news channels: e.g., a dense fog in China shuts down Beijing's airport. A security breach on a Japan Air Lines flight leads to delays and cancellations. Strikes . . . protests . . . fires . . . you won't get any of it from a domestic news source. (Consider the difference between the U.S. version of CNN and the one you see overseas.)

Nations are rated for their level of risk of suffering physical harm on a scale of one to five, with five indicating threats up to full-scale military hostilities may be present. Embassy announcements and warnings are included after the regional round-up. And there's a concluding calendar of dates that might affect travelers. In mid-February, Lithuanian Independence Day closed all businesses and offices; but a detour to Mauritius on the same day would put crew and passengers in the midst of Maha Shivaratri, a public holiday when everything's closed.

LeBlanc says "Hotspots" has a following among flight department staffers who delight in surprising their colleagues with what's going on out there. "Too many intelligence firms provide stuff that isn't specific to aviation," LeBlanc says. "They can tell you about São Paulo, but not about the airport. Nothing should surprise the captain when he opens the door. Goats on the runway? He should know it. What he's gonna face?"

Principals of the larger established companies in aviation security believe it's a growing field as fleets grow and companies expand markets, especially into the Third World. The time seemed right to launch a new company, say John Cosenza and Deborah Jacob, managing partners of BizJet Security, headquartered in San Mateo, Calif. Both the principals bring extensive backgrounds in aviation and corporate security to the table, Cosenza at Citigroup and Siebel Systems and Jacob at Bank of America and Bechtel. They opened the doors in April 2006.

As a two-person shop, they rely heavily on their network of vetted providers to serve clients and say that they take a more hands-on approach to servicing client companies. "We think we're different from many security companies that don't have aviation security core competencies," Cosenza says. "We want to be a boutique business," Jacob says. "For the corporations and high net worth individuals we work with, we think we bring a unique perspective."

Cosenza emphasizes his own background running flight departments. "You have to understand aviation management at the flight department level, and we've done it." Jacob adds, "Our clients like that they're getting a corporate security director or corporate aviation management director [in us]."

BizJet Security provides intelligence and information, from regular reports on major locations to trip sheets, analysis, and planning. "It's easy to say 'Don't go,'" Cosenza says, "but we work for organizations that operate in these high-risk areas, so what we'd rather do is mitigate the risks and threats."

On the operations side, they support a trip in environments that demand a high level of security and get people out if things start to head south. It's a day-night, all-week job for both partners, who are always within reach of a phone. Says Jacob, "I haven't had a good night's sleep in 25 years." Without trusted vendors, they couldn't make it. "We have established resources around the world, and we have confidence in their decision-making," Cosenza says. BizJet Security prefers to work directly with the flight department scheduling and dispatching the trip. Tight monitoring via flight following and tracking is complemented by an e-mail link to the dispatch team or the captain. "It's relationship building," Cosenza says.

The world has changed, but flight departments and executives traveling for leisure may not realize how much. "Some places are no longer very safe," Jacob points out. "Southern Thailand used to be a paradise where a lot of Americans went to scuba dive and sail." An Islamic fundamentalist movement active in the area has raised the threat level. Indonesia . . . Mexico . . . Venezuela . . . Bolivia -- Jacob ticks off the list of red-alert areas. "The days of wrapping yourself in the [American] flag and feeling safe are over," she says. "You can't look at a country in total; some areas are safe, some are not. Even here in this country, look at each airport, each city. There are places you wouldn't go." Cosenza also says locals can become inured to conditions and recalls the person who told him, of Bogotá, Colombia, "If it weren't for the crime and the terrorism, this would be a great place to live."

Cosenza argues that the current global climate requires stepping things up a notch. "I'm concerned that in many cases, people who plan a flight leave all security matters at the destination to a handler. A lot of handlers are good, but in a lot of cases you get untrained people who are guarding the aircraft because he's somebody's brother." He tells of the Citigroup captain who decided to go out to the aircraft an hour earlier than planned and found that the guard had built a fire next to the airplane to keep warm.

Brent Muldowan is representative of a user of security services. As an aircraft manager at TAG Aviation, he advises his company's aircraft owners on matters of security and knows the support vendors based on long experience. "For us as managers, it's a bit different perspective. We make suggestions like, 'Mr. Owner, this is a scary place, are you aware of the risks?' and it turns out the corporation has requirements of its own. So we provide the best information we can and then collaborate with the client."

Muldowan says S&D professionals can't afford to wait around for a trip to pop up and then find they're way behind the airplane. "First examine the trip and go to an international trip planner. By and large corporate operators don't go to enough scary places to know what to do. Develop relationships proactively as a flight department. Really great schedulers don't wait for stuff to happen to them. They know people and they take action."

Rely on third party experts, he says. "You want that third party involved because you need that kind of audit," Muldowan says. "You hire these folks to act as devil's advocate, but you need them." He cites the case of an N-registered aircraft landing in the Congo and parking for five days. "That's probably not a safe place to stay. There are security options but not trusted ones. The insurance rider would be $12,000 a night to cover just the airplane. Sometimes you have to drop somebody off and park somewhere else. Some places you don't even drop 'em off," he says. Others B&CA spoke with preferred to avoid dropping off passengers because then they have no way to leave, but every situation is different.

"Corporate aviation is an environment that's unique compared to any other field of security," says ASI Group's LeBlanc. "I recall sitting down with chief pilots and learning that they carried $150,000 in cash -- wads of currency to buy fuel in these undeveloped areas. No credit facilities. Companies like Air Routing and Universal had [credit] cards but they were really for convenience. It's a security issue."

Both ASI Group and FAM International conduct informational sessions for schedulers, dispatchers and flight department staffs. FAM's security awareness program teaches S&D professionals to identify global risks, understand how terrorists target and carry out attacks, how security providers mitigate threats, and the liability and accountability of providers. ASI's CAST (Corporate Aviation Security Training) teaches flight personnel to identify and act on threats as well as develop and maintain a current plan for contingencies while overseas.

What does all this cost? Expect to negotiate rates based upon your number of trips and passengers moved in a typical year, the size of the fleet, destinations and their nominal threat levels. Some agreements are modeled after software licenses where you pay so much per user seat. Few providers want to purvey one-time intelligence or assessments, so expect to be pitched on the basis of a long-term contract. You can insist on including an out clause so you can make a change if things don't work out.

Any scheduler or dispatcher who thinks the passengers and crew won't hold them to account for a trip that ends badly needs to view the 1982 film "The Year of Living Dangerously" based on a novel by Christopher Koch. In it, Mel Gibson plays an Australian journalist who, together with a small group of foreign nationals, becomes entangled in the events in Indonesia in 1965 when a violent political upheaval resulted in the death of thousands. The streets are lined with armed soldiers and tanks. The tension that builds as westerners try to flee the country will stand anyone's hair on end.

Now imagine that one of those fleeing westerners is your CEO, and he makes it home despite your inadequate preparation...

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