By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
BAHAMIAN commercial airlines have effectively abandoned some routes to illegal 'hackers', a senior executive yesterday saying he wanted promised regulatory 'crackdowns' to turn into action.
Captain Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas' president and chief executive, told Tribune Business that he heard pledges such as those given by Dionisio D'Aguilar, the Cabinet minister responsible for aviation, given "many, many times before" with little effect.
Warning of the potential safety risk for both Bahamians and tourists, Captain Butler said the presence of foreign 'hackers' in the Bahamian market further complicated an already-messy situation, although he argued that regulators knew the identities of most culprits.
"I see the Minister [Mr D'Aguilar] saying he's going to do something," the Sky Bahamas chief told this newspaper. "I'm encouraged, but I've heard that many, many times before. Unless that changes, and the Minister has some magical power, he's got to demonstrate the political will to do it and see it be done because the hackers continue to fly.
"I think his people, the Civil Aviation people, know who the hackers are because they've seen it going on. Some of the legitimate operators have been using illegal operators to do flights for them. And we've not only got the Bahamian hackers but the foreign hackers in here, too."
Captain Butler's comments came after it emerged that Darren Clarke, the pilot of the Piper Aztec plane that crashed last week, killing himself and five other people off Andros, did not possess a commercial pilot's licence.
Well-placed Tribune Business sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed this meant he was not legally entitled to charge passengers for flying them around the Bahamas. And this newspaper was also informed that Mr Clarke's licence only entitled him to fly single engine planes, not a two-engine Piper Aztec.
Captain Butler, meanwhile, said the practice of 'hacking' had become deeply ingrained in Bahamian aviation culture because it had been allowed to persist so long with minimal interference from the authorities.
"Because it's so long-standing, it's just the way business is," Captain Butler told Tribune Business.
"We have to pay the Nassau Airport Development Company to use their main terminal and bring passengers through, we have to pay for pilot training every six months, we have to pay for maintenance and we have to pay Civil Aviation to land in the Family Islands.
"Established airlines don't go to some of these places where hackers operate. It's just such an established practice that you don't go where they go."
Captain Butler said the main problem facing the aviation industry when it came to tackling 'hackers' was lack of enforcement, coupled with the reluctance of commercial airlines to fly 'low load factor' routes to some Family Islands.
"We can't forget that the demand is a huge one, as a lot of these Family Islands depend on airlift to get their food perishables in, to get tourists in, and this exposes these people to hackers," the Sky Bahamas chief said, explaining that the latter were merely 'filling the vacuum' left by commercial airlines.
Mr D'Aguilar yesterday told Tribune Business that he and the Civil Aviation Authority were "brainstorming" ways to check the airworthiness of planes, and pilot licences, based on what current resource/manpower constraints they face.
Describing the present situation as "unacceptable", Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business that illegal charters and 'hackers' had been permitted to ply their trade through "decades of neglect".
"Every time there is an incident, and there have been a number of incidents in the first 22 days of the year, it really brings into question whether there's sufficient oversight over the airworthiness of these aircraft and the licences of pilots who fly these aircraft," the Minister said. "It causes us to ask questions as to how we can do this better.
"The traveller would want to know when they get on an aircraft that the pilot is fully licensed and the aircraft has all the certification that makes it necessary. There are challenges. There are a number of foreign aircraft that come into this jurisdiction that are governed by certification from other countries and jurisdictions."
Mr D'Aguilar confirmed that the Piper Aztec involved in last week's crash was US-registered in the state of Delaware. Tribune Business sources said the pilot had a US licence, which required a medical examination every two years, but none had been conducted since 2014.
"Unless we can come up with a mechanism that can really check the pilot and aircraft, and verify and certify them before each flight, the public doesn't know," the Minister added. "They expect the regulators to verify for them.
"As I sit here brainstorming and trying to find a way forward to address this hacking issue, they all [hackers] come into an airport, and maybe that's where we check them." Mr D'Aguilar said such checks would not apply to Bahamian and foreign commercial airlines, and added that the Government may ask fixed base operators (FBOs) to help them in this effort.
"It's unacceptable," he told Tribune Business of the current situation. "In the Bahamas you should be able to get in a plane knowing it's been checked for airworthiness and the pilot has the necessary licences.
"There are decades of neglect with this issue. The travelling public should demand and expect the regulatory bodies to address this issue for them. It's a complex issue because of the archipelagic nature of the country, and 28 government airports and 56 private strips. It's not easy to police, and the hackers know that."
Acknowledging the Civil Aviation Authority's inability to oversee every Family Island because of manpower constraints, Mr D'Aguilar said the Government also had to strike the "right balance" between regulation and bureaucracy.
"This is a vexing issue," he admitted to Tribune Business. "We have to get the balance right. We know what we have to do. It's just a matter of how we implement it to get the best results. It's not rocket science. But every time somebody flies into this jurisdiction, do they have to provide more information and how deep does it go?"