By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority revealed initiatives to clamp down on illegal flight operations on Friday.
These initiatives will include requiring Bahamian pilots holding foreign licences to apply for Bahamian licences, a public education air safety campaign, and the creation of a multi-agency law enforcement task force.
Led by BCAA Director General Captain Charles Beneby, Friday's press conference served as a follow-up to the authority's briefing in the wake of the fatal plane crash off Mastic Point, Andros, which claimed the lives of six people in early January.
Since the incident, officials have revealed that the pilot lacked the required licences to charter flights.
In the press conference held January 31, the BCAA pledged to clamp down on illegal charter operations by embracing technology, involving law enforcement and increasing surveillance to identify and prosecute law-breakers in the aviation industry.
Offering condolences to the families of the victims, Mr Beneby provided updates about the process.
“We constantly review our processes, but coming out of the accident in January, we have been…very busy in reviewing our systems,” he said.
“We’ve realized that that particular issue highlighted the need for a multi-pronged approach to resolving, eradicating… what has been in place for some time— a practice of illegal operations, where persons not duly authorized and qualified are engaged in the carriage of persons, we believe for hire.”
“These activities generally involve aircraft licensed and registered in another state, operated by pilots licensed in another state.”
Mr Beneby said key elements of the efforts to remediate the situation include increased surveillance, active enforcement, and provisions whereby those who wish to become regularized can do so.
The practice of pilots holding foreign licences is a "unique issue", he said.
“Ordinarily, they do not fall under the scrutiny of the BCAA. We are amending the regulations to require all Bahamian citizens holding foreign-issued licences to apply to the Authority to have those licences converted to a Bahamian licence.”
“The benefit of that is to ensure that they come under our scrutiny,” Mr Beneby added.
The Director General also said the regulations are being amended to require all foreign-registered aircraft in the Bahamas to be registered with the Authority “if those aircraft are in the country for more than a specified period of time”.
“That information would reflect ownership of the aircraft, airworthiness of aircraft, information about the pilots and the operator of that aircraft,” Mr Beneby said.
“Unfortunately…. a number of flights are being performed with foreign aircraft that ordinarily we would not scrutinize.”
To assist the general public, Mr Beneby said an education programme will be launched, so people can “understand what their obligations are and what their rights are before they make the choice to fly with these individuals”.
To this end, the BCAA’s website has been updated to include a list of all authorized operators in the country.
“We have also reintroduced a programme of badging aircraft,” Mr Beneby revealed.
“That is, we issue badges to be displayed prominently in the aircraft so that the person can know that that operation has been scrutinized and has been found to be acceptable.”
Mr Beneby also said that such enhanced surveillance and scrutiny measures require more manpower, noting that there are 28 government operated airports in the country.
“We have already started the first phase of our recruitment and selection process to enable us to do (this) at Lynden Pindling International Airport and other Family Island airports.”
Approximately eight new staff members will be hired to assist with this process. There are currently 29 people in the Safety Oversight Department, and Mr Beneby added that he could see the number doubling “over time”.
Other regulations the BCAA is introducing include drafting new security directives requiring fixed-based operators.
Mr Beneby explained, “This is a business that requires services to aircraft operations in the country. To verify and validate information relating to the pilot, the aircraft, and the persons travelling.”
“ They will also be required to verify and confirm that the pilot is duly licensed, has proper medicals, that the aircraft has been maintained to some schedule, and that they possess, they being the pilot or the operator of the aircraft, possess the necessary approvals by the Authority before they are are able to operate that flight.”
“So our goal is to create an atmosphere where we have the highest level of safety and we want to be able to perform our duties to provide a safe environment for persons travelling in the Bahamas,” he added.
Mr Beneby also called for stiffer penalties for illegal operators or hackers.
During January’s press conference, Mr Beneby confirmed no one has ever been convicted for such actions, although the law already allows "hackers" to be fined as much as $10,000 or be imprisoned up to two years for their illegal behaviour.
When asked why convicting them is often a challenge, Mr Beneby pointed to the difficulty of proving that they are operating for hire.
“What makes it challenging is the fact that we are asserting that they are operating, that they are flying for hire,” he said.
“The practice is that the operator would frequently say, ‘this is my cousin’, ‘this is my sister’, ‘this is my family’.
“And then, those persons that are flying with these people, are reluctant to come forward to say ‘I paid’.
“So that is why this public education campaign is going to be so important. Persons need to understand that they are placing themselves at great risk if they are operating with an entity or a person who has not been duly certified.”
This lack of cooperation makes it difficult for charges to be successful in a court of law.
When asked if there should be stiffer penalties for hackers, Mr Beneby agreed.
“It is an illegal act, so upon conviction, we intend to recommend stiffer penalties, greater fines, seizure of aircraft involved in the activity, and imprisonment where allowed.”
In January, Mr Beneby said new video capture capabilities, such as CCTVs, will be erected in general aviation areas to "enhance security capabilities."
When asked about this, Mr Beneby said they have the technology, but “boots on the ground” is what is truly needed.
“We need boots on the ground. We need people to intersect these operators, and to require them to show proof that they are authorized to be there.”
“And I would hasten to add that it is not only local operators. We have foreign operators that are conducting illegal flight operations into the Bahamas without the requisite approvals.
“And one of the things that we have started to do was introduce a multi-agency task force involving the police, customs and immigration, defence force, and the airport authority. Because all of these people now need to pool their resources and coordinate.”