By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas was yesterday urged to “go back to the drawing board” on aviation regulation, after the Government’s own agencies effectively admitted that unauthorised charter flights were a lawless ‘Wild Wild West’.
Captain Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas’ chief executive, described as “an indictment” the admissions by the Government’s own regulators that they lack the manpower, and support from criminal law, to properly police the unlicensed air charter industry.
The Civil Aviation Department (CAD) and its Flight Standards Inspectorate, in newspaper advertisements published yesterday, conceded their impotence and inability to deal with the ‘hackers’ that proliferate at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) and many Family Island airports.
The advertisement described illegal aircraft charter operations as “a dangerous form of black market travel” that was “rampant in the Bahamas”, posing a potential threat to the lives of any persons that elected to use them.
It added: “Most illegal pilots work quietly ‘out of the back of their cars’ and do not advertise, making them difficult to apprehend.”
And, most damning of all, the CAD/Flight Standards Inspectorate ad then admits that the Bahamas lacks the necessary laws to enforce criminal sanctions and penalties against so-called ‘hackers’.
The regulatory agencies, meanwhile, do not have sufficient manpower and resources to cope with the problem.
“Presently in the Bahamas there are no criminal penalties for any pilot caught operating illegally,” the advertisement states. “Furthermore, CAD is faced with limited manpower to continually police these ‘hackers’.”
Hubert Adderley, the Flight Standards Inspectorate head, told Tribune Business that the advertisement was intended to “squelch” public demand for illegal charter flights.
Emphasising that he wanted to run the advertisement “every week”, Mr Adderley gave a long pause before answering when Tribune Business asked whether the CAD and Flight Standards Inspectorate were admitting that it was an unregulated ‘Wild Wild West’ when it came to ‘hacker’ pilots operating in the Bahamas.
While not conceding this, Mr Adderley said decisions on implementing criminal laws and penalties for illegal charter operators needed to be taken at a station higher than his, pointing out that CAD was a civil agency.
“I wish I could run it every week,” he told Tribune Business of the advertisement, adding that there had been no noticeable increase in ‘hacking’.
“I want the public to be aware that when they hop into these aircraft, unauthorised carriers, they really put their lives at risk,” Mr Adderley told Tribune Business. “You’re pretty much putting your life in their hands.
“There are certain things that authorised charters have to go through that unauthorised charters and hackers don’t have to go through. We want the public to be aware that when they are making these decisions, what are they making these decisions on, because in most cases they don’t know.”
Mr Adderley said there had been no push from the Flight Standards Inspectorate to enact criminal laws targeting ‘hackers’, because its role - and that of CAD - was a civil one, overseeing their own rules and regulation.
“Enforcement of this thing is another story, and a requirement beyond civil aviation,” he told Tribune Business.
“It’s hard to enforce. As long as there’s a demand for it, it’ll always be in place. Like other things in our society.
“What we are trying to do is squelch the demand, and give the public the information to make the right choices. You have less risk when you move to an authorised carrier.”
The ‘hacker’ situation represents a major reputational threat to the Bahamas, especially its economy, given how reliant this nation is on air travel to bring in 1.5 million-plus annual stopover tourists and connect all islands in this archipelago country.
And it has already cost lives, as the nine men killed when a Cessna aircraft, headed to San Salvador for the 2010 Discovery Day weekend festival, crashed into waters at Lake Killarney, were widely understood to have been taking an unauthorised charter.
The issue again raises questions over the Bahamas’ air safety and regulatory regime, and whether it is compliant with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards. Any negative findings by the latter and other regulatory bodies could negatively impact the aviation sector and, by extension, the wider economy, including plans to develop a Bahamian aircraft registry.
Sky Bahamas’ Captain Butler questioned whether the admissions meant the Bahamas was in compliance with ICAO, and the core requirement to provide aviation safety oversight.
“When Civil Aviation puts out a release like this, when they admit this is happening, they admit they have no regulations to deal with it, and admit they have no manpower to deal with it, what are you saying?” Captain Butler asked.
“Based on this, what are you saying? Are we able to comply with ICAO? I ask the question: Are we meeting the ICAO requirements?
“You indicated we have no adequate criminal laws. That’s an indictment. They’re saying they are challenged with having enough people. That’s an indictment. They need to go back to the drawing board so the Minister can say: ‘Do we have the eight critical elements for safety oversight?’”
Captain Butler said “political will” was again the key reform factor, and told Tribune Business: “Based on the release, it is an admission of them not either having the political will to do something about it, because it’s very easy to take care of, or they’re incapable of doing something about it because of difficulties with manpower.
“They are required to, and signed on to, provide oversight for the industry, and are required to have adequate laws and resources. To say they have no laws,... come on. That’s no excuse.”
Captain Butler indicated there may also have been complicity from the ‘legitimate’ aviation industry in the growth of ‘hackers’, revealing that some carriers were using unauthorised charters to perform flights for them.
He added that the Government, too, sometimes used unauthorised charters to move its people around the Bahamas.
Pointing out that enforcement should be a relatively simple matter, given that all pilots had to have licences or airport passes to access planes, Captain Butler also urged that the Government simplify the process for unauthorised charter operators to become ‘legal’.
Many, he said, regarded the certification process as “too costly and cumbersome, and doesn’t make sense”.