Private-jet security is full of holes, as proven by Ghosn’s escape

Former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn speaks to Japanese media during an interview in Beirut. (AP pic)

TOKYO: When he skipped bail at the end of December and made his way to Lebanon via private jet, Carlos Ghosn exploited a loophole commonly known among pilots and security specialists.

Pre-flight security screenings for the wealthy and corporate executives are lenient, because those with the money and means to use such modes of transit aren’t typically considered a security risk, according experts, including Philip Baum, managing director at London-based security consultancy Green Light Ltd.

The escape of the former chairman and chief executive of Nissan Motor Co and Renault SA from trial in Japan, smuggled onto a Bombardier jet in a large box for audio equipment, didn’t just reveal security lapses in private aviation, but also the difficulty authorities around the world face in plugging those gaps. “The same thing could happen in most countries,” Baum said.

Japanese officials, embarrassed by Ghosn’s dramatic escape, quickly moved to tighten security holes in the screening process.

Transport Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba ordered large packages for private jets to undergo compulsory inspection, which until Ghosn’s escape had been done at the pilot’s discretion.

While Ghosn’s dramatic escape may already be the stuff of corporate lore, its impact on aviation security is likely to remain minimal.

“It’s questionable how effective the stricter screenings will be,” said Hajime Tozaki, a professor at JF Oberlin University in southwest Tokyo.

A labor shortage in Japan’s airport security sector could also make it difficult to step up monitoring, he added.

It’s very likely that anyone determined to bypass security measures will still be able to get around stricter controls.

A private-jet pilot, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of his job, said when crew members drove up to planes he has flown over the past decade, security would typically only involve guards counting the number of passengers.

Most rich passengers are paying to avoid the hassle of standing in security lines and being screened, not just for privacy and flexibility.

Indeed, Ghosn’s flight alone cost $350,000, in addition to the millions of dollars he probably paid for the team that extracted him. He also forfeited $14 million in bail money.

Ghosn was arrested in November 2018 and charged with financial crimes, all of which he has denied. He spent almost 130 days in jail and was freed on bail last year under strict conditions, such as not being able to communicate with his wife and only allowed to use a computer in his lawyer’s office.

Ghosn, speaking earlier this month from Beirut, said he fled Japan because he no longer thought he would have a fair and speedy trial.

In the days following his escape, a fuller picture emerged of the the captivating details of the caper.

Ghosn was free to travel within Japan, and on Dec 29 he made his way to a hotel near Kansai International Airport by taking a three-hour ride by bullet train from Tokyo, undetected.

For the final leg to the jet, Ghosn hid inside a box used for audio equipment that was too large to fit in the airport scanners, and was loaded onto a waiting private jet without further inspection, people familiar with the operation have said.

Ghosn himself has remained mostly silent about his flight from Japan, saying at a news conference in Beirut earlier this month that he won’t be revealing the details.

The private jet pilot said he’s heard about stricter controls since Ghosn’s escape, it’s not clear whether they are temporary or permanent.

There’s good chance that, after a period of stricter controls, screenings will become lax again, according to Ichiro Kubo, a former immigration official who worked for more than two decades in the bureau’s Tokyo office.

There are also limits to how far a thorough inspection can go in Japan. For example, officials usually won’t look inside caskets for dead bodies, which are often transported outside of Japan as cargo for foreigners who pass away in the country, said a senior official at a firm that conducts security screenings at Japanese airports.

“This was a regional incident,” Baum said. “Private jets are, in certain parts of the world, routinely used in narco-trafficking and for human trafficking — these are arguably far more serious than an escapologist.”