Private International Travel...The price is worth the no TSA?
September 14, 2012 9:09 PM   Subscribe

[Novel Filter/Oh the 1%]: How do international flights work when flying on a private jet?

Specifically a flight between DC and a generic European city.

If you needed to get three people from European city to DC and return with six people in a short window of time, how large a plane would you need? Are there small jets that do this? What airport would you likely use (in DC)? Would you be allowed to land at a private airport?

And finally, how far could money go to make that trip as private/secret as possible (and what would that mean, I assume the FAA get a record of the flight regardless of who you are...)? Would you need to be Bruce Wayne or would being a Pitt-Jolie be sufficient (recognizing they have a LOT of money)?
posted by ilikecookies to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
REAMDE by Neil Stephenson discusses this in much detail, including how to get into the country undetected. (It's fictional and he talks about his sources at the end, so you should definitely give it a read. It's only like 1500 pages :)
posted by jrockway at 9:29 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've flown internationally out of the DC (NoVA) area on a private jet many times, with 5-8 other passengers. Typically the equipment was a G4 (Gulfstream 450, seats 8) or Cessna Citation Sovereign (seats 9). These were for international flight within the Americas, so for transatlantic you might need something with more range, though the G4 looks capable. London to DC is about 3500 flight miles. Crew is minimal: pilot and often co-pilot, who doubles as flight attendant. I don't know the rules about when you can have only one pilot. Unless you are piloting yourself, your pilot will be provided by whomever you're getting the equipment from. Most private flights I've been on have been through a fractional ownership program and they supply the crew.

Usually you use the General Aviation area of a public airport rather than either the commercial area or a private strip. But "allowance" to land anywhere is first of all determined by whether the length of the runway and approach area are adequate for the plane you're flying. And then of course, per agreement and payment with whoever owns the airport. In an emergency you can land anywhere. To open up the ability to take off from and land in more places, you'd look for a "short take off and landing" STOL aircraft that has transatlantic range. I don't know what commercial or private equipment has both those features because I'm unfamiliar with that subset, but military jets are an obvious example.

For your last question, the sweetspots are how many humans are you interacting with and who will look the other way for a sum? Among those people would have to be crew. Since September 11, 2001 it is much harder to get on board without notice. My experience from a US perspective is that the flight service--whoever you're using to supply a pilot and crew--request and file passport info in advance (a week?) and then check that against actual passengers the day of. A revised passenger manifest and flight plan is filed at the time of flight based on who's actually on board and what the weather and/or traffic are like en route. At that point, you used to be able to simply fly to your destination. Now however, you're required to stop, both on departure from the US and reentry to the US, at the first international airport within your flight path in order for FAA/Immigration/? to check your passengers and flight plan. Sometimes passports are simply handed to personnel while you remain on the plane. Sometimes personnel come onto the plane to match passports with passengers. Sometimes you have to get off the plane and go through an actual customs procedure similar to a commercial flight, but usually you're dealing with the number of people from your flight and one or two others so it's very quick. I believe everyone "has" to disembark if the plane is refueling, so there's that to account for.

I'm less clear what happens if you're not using a flight service, for instance if you are the pilot and your friends are the passengers. Certainly you still need to provide passport info, but you could simply not file for whoever you're secreting on board. You'll have to find a way to get them on board. One person seems easy to me; three less so. At a smaller international airport this wouldn't be too hard I imagine, given the laxity at GA and who's in and out of the building--ground crew, food delivery, cleaning, your taxi driver who might also be carrying your luggage to the plane. So: fewer people to buy off and more general busyness around the plane. These people would be more likely to think someone's out of place however ("Oh, why's Joe not doing the food delivery?") At a larger FBO (e.g., like that associated with Reagan International) it would be easier to be anonymous but harder to get to the plane, because those tend to have locked/carded doors and at least one actual security checkpoint, x-ray machine, etc. same as in the commercial area. You'd need the collusion of someone in security. I don't know what happens behind the scenes at security, so whether the person who does security at the door to the tarmac then also needs to ensure someone else's compliance.

Once on board you'll need to hide those people inside the cabin for either the length of the flight (if the crew's not privvy) or at least for other checkpoints. On the equipment I mentioned above, I could see hiding one person in the luggage area off the bathroom. It would comfortably fit a person, and still be in arm's length of the drawer stocked with complimentary candy, hairspray, and mints.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 3:36 AM on September 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Depending on how limited a small jet's fuel supply is, it might stop in Iceland or something on the way to the continent.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:42 AM on September 15, 2012

Best answer: I've flown a small private plane from Seattle to Canada. Hardly a trip for international espionage but I've been through most of the relevant procedures. Yoshimi's post covers most of the details right. Getting in and out of the US requires filing a passenger manifest via eAPIS; I forget, it's either 24 hours or 1 hour in advance of the flight departure. Here's a simple explanation of the process.

In theory DHS can check you when exiting the US, but in practice they mostly don't, although you do have to leave from a designated departure airport. You do have to clear customs, etc in your destination country; procedures vary, but I imagine all the Schengen countries are consistent. Coming back in to the US is much more specific; you have to have a flight plan and a 5 minute window where you are landing at a specific Airport of Entry where you then immediately taxi to the Customs shed and go through a private immigration and customs procedure. There are lots of US entry airports, including some far inland, so you don't have to land right across the border. The check we did was fairly serious, there was no way we could have hidden a person or any cargo.

If your definition of privacy doesn't involve anything illegal, then it's pretty much standard operating procedure for a jet charter service to be discreet. The charter company will need to know your passengers identities and provide them to the US government (and possibly, the European government). They won't tell anyone else though. The other thing that's public is the flight path of the plane itself: you can use a site like FlightAware to track most flights in progress. Nothing there personally identifies you, but it's pretty easy to follow a plane if you know roughly when and where it's going. It is possible to block your plane from being visible this way, I'm not sure if the charter companies do that as a matter of course or not.

A European trip requires a jet and is terribly expensive. You could leave from any airport you want in DC; presumably National is most convenient. There are a variety of smaller airports in Europe you could land at, doesn't have to be the big commercial ones, but you do have to comply with the customs and immigration procedures in Europe.
posted by Nelson at 9:42 AM on September 15, 2012

Response by poster: Some really amazing information and resources here; I feel well-pointed in the right direction.
So it sounds looks like discretion is the modus operandi, obfuscation is possible up to a point, and outright smuggling someone is a bit more difficult. Thank you thank you thank you.
posted by ilikecookies at 9:52 AM on September 15, 2012

Just to add to the good answers above. If you're flying a jet any distance then you're going to fly well above 18,000' (jets burn far less fuel at altitude - so you don't have much range if you stay low). Once you go above 18k you're in what's called class A airspace and you have to fly on an Instrument Flight Plan. This means you have to tell air traffic control (ATC) the route you plan to fly and you're in contact with them constantly as long as the engines are running. As a minor detail, you may be out of contact for long periods mid ocean, but they are expecting you to contact them at your predetermined arrival point in their airspace. (I think there are some long range communications mid ocean where the big planes check-in every 10 degrees of longitude). In any case if you don't show up when and where you're expected and start talking with ATC, these days they scramble the fighter jets to go meet you. So travelling long range by jet incognito would be pretty hard in the developed world.

In the US (and other places, but not everywhere, especially Europe) over shorter distances or in propeller planes you can stay below 18,000' and above 10,000' and fly visual flight rules where you really don't need to talk with anybody as long as you don't land at a larger airport with a control tower.
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:08 AM on September 15, 2012

re: Undetected ... landing at a shit-hole airport is probably a good way to make sure your passport isn't scanned into a computer. I landed at Toulon-Hyeres last week on an international flight, and no one scanned my passport.
posted by jannw at 12:31 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Washington National airport (DCA) has some totally ridiculous security theater for general aviation, so far as requiring a law enforcement officer onboard. Other airports in the region are more often used by private jets, such as Manassas and Dulles and would be more suitable for this mission.

FWIW my little prop plane could get me from the DC area to Europe (see CarolAnn Garratt). The trip, which I hope to make some day, would be via New England with stops in Greenland and Iceland. Obviously it's much slower than a jet, but it's much cheaper to operate and provides more discomfort adventure. A small jet without the range to go to Europe nonstop could stop for fuel in those places, or in the Azores.

Regarding privacy, it is possible to block flight tracking information, though a hired charter aircraft would likely work just as well or better.
posted by exogenous at 7:17 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey exogenous, that's a great tip about the airports. For the sake of the story, it's more an issue of some, but not all, of the PEOPLE on the plane needing to maintain secrecy/obfuscate their identities. The flight plan can be properly filed and all that (right?), but I am now curious about how much advance notice the powers that be need for such a flight to be scheduled.

In the world of fiction you kinda need to balance reality versus what the story needs, but I do try to stay within the realm of probability. You all have been enormously helpful and have provided me with all sorts of research worm holes to fall into. :)
posted by ilikecookies at 9:35 PM on September 15, 2012

I can't speak for Europe, but in the US you can get away with a 60 minute minimum notice of departure to the feds via eAPIS with passport info, etc. (amazingly, one actually needs permission to leave the United States if traveling by private plane). This information isn't publicly available though. My guess is the European customs folks would be satisfied if notified right before departure as the flight would be at least a few hours. I know Canada requires >=2 hours notice and the Bahamas doesn't require advance notice.

A flight plan (required for legal international flight touching US airspace) is tied to the aircraft and doesn't include information on the people on board, apart from the number of them present.
posted by exogenous at 4:51 AM on September 16, 2012

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