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Flights out of Venezuela: a game of windmills and giants

By W.K.

19.04.06 | “Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants?” said Don Quixote. “Take care, kind sir,” cried Sancho, “Those over there are not giants but windmills.”

In this enlightened age of ours, supposedly immune from the spells of Merlin the Magician and too jaded to stand in awe of the marvels of the Thousand and One Nights, appearances can still be deceptive: Don Quixote would say the plane belongs to a U.S. airline, used for tourist charter flights. It is obvious to all observers that it is an American aircraft, judging from the fact that the tail number begins with the letter N. What better proof of its nationality than the proudly displayed Stars and Stripes on its tail? Enough of Don Quixote!

Says Sancho: That airplane has no nationality. The airline may be using a name taken from the Anglo-American commercial vernacular, but that does not necessarily give it U.S. nationality. It may or may not be a Delaware corporation, its real owners residing in other continents. They may or may not even be the real owners of the aircraft, as the registered owner may or may not be some U.S. bank, owned by who knows whom. The letter N, which is part of the tail number, used to tell the rest of the world that this was an aircraft of U.S. nationality; but not anymore. For all practical purposes the letter N has turned into a flag of convenience. Tracing the ownership of an aircraft has become a task as daunting as identifying the tramp steamers of yesteryear.

Case in point: There is an airline that caters to the needs of very important people, namely, Mid East Jet, based in Saudi Arabia. It has a fleet of seven aircraft ranging from the latest Boeing 777 to a more modest Bombardier BD-700-1A0. Five of these jets show the letter N on their tails, and are properly registered in the United States, under the name of Wells Fargo Bank in Salt Lake City, Utah. An older Boeing 727-21 bears the tail number VP-BNA, and is registered in Bermuda under the name of Arapaho, Ltd. Also registered in Bermuda is the Bombardier BD-700-1A0, tail number VP-BGG, under the name of Air Nauticus, Ltd.

This pattern of systematic ambiguity meant to protect the privacy of the rich and famous, and all in the name of corporate security, plays into the hands of the unscrupulous, namely drug dealers, and worse yet, terrorists. The previous or alternate corporate identity of “Mid East Jet” is “Skyways International.” It has been reported that on May 16, 1999 a “Skyway International” 727 was used by a member of the Saudi royal family to fly 4,400 lbs. of cocaine from Caracas to Paris, all under the cloak of diplomatic immunity. Did that 727 have the tail number VP-BNA?

There has been no clear official pronouncement in the press concerning the true ownership of the DC-9-15, tail number N900SA, used for smuggling 5.5 tons of cocaine into Mexico from Venezuela on April 11, 2006. Most of what has been said is conflicting. Less has been said about the Falcon 20, tail number XB-IYK, which made a rendezvous with the DC-9 on the tarmac at Ciudad del Carmen. Unlike the DC-9, the press has not published any photographs of that executive jet. However, one press release did say that it is white and has elegant trim in different shades of grey. The letters XB-IYK indicate it is registered in Mexico, but, given the flag of convenience game that prevails, that does not prove the nationality of its true owner, leaseholder or operator.

It is obvious that the system for registering civil aircraft in the different countries of the world is rife with loopholes, making it easy for the unscrupulous to “jump title” on an aircraft and use it for mischief or mayhem. In these times of uncertainty it is incumbent upon legislative bodies such as the British Parliament and the United States Congress to hold fact-finding hearings in the matter in order to legislate necessary reforms.

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