International Relations

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
Published in the International Business Aircraft Council monthly magazine in 1986

What’s a corporate airplane without a bar on it, right? Everyone knows the passengers like a little hit now and then. It puts the color back in white knuckles. I’ve even heard tell of a crew or two that’s been known to have an occasional little shooter out of the private stock once the bird’s in the barn. That perk won’t be around for long though. Congress is sure to find some way to tax that one as well. The purpose here is not to attack the questionable wisdom of Congress. The purpose is to question the wisdom of some corporate flight crews on international flights.

Recently, a US registered jet, owned by a multi-national corporation, encountered a bit of difficulty in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The bar had been sealed in compliance with customs regulations regarding alcohol on board. However, during the subsequent customs search a substantial amount of alcohol was found stashed in various little nooks and crannies. The crew proclaimed innocence and blamed it on the pack-rat tendencies of the previous flight crew. All to no avail. They were socked with a substantial fine, not to mention the trouble and embarrassment they caused their sponsor here in the Kingdom. 

One could speculate that since the aircraft was on an extensive trip, it was decided to overstock the bar in case booze was difficult to find, or expensive to buy, on the road. However, one basic rule of international operations was overlooked, either by accident or intent. Know the rules of the country you are visiting. While flying U.S. registered airplanes in and out of the Kingdom, I personally dumped a lot of booze down the drain prior to landing. The tendency to stash it is strong, whether in the interest of cost effectiveness or what-not. Whatever the motivation to stash is, it’s just not worth it. Besides, you are a guest in the host country just like you would be a guest in a host’s home. You are expected to abide by the rules, not judge them by your own standards.

Islam is not just a religion, it’s a way of life and the hub around which the Kingdom rotates. Saudi Arabian registered airplanes are forbidden to carry alcohol. Regulations require that alcohol on foreign registered airplanes entering the Kingdom must be place under lock and remain so until final exit from the Kingdom. Should you make an internal trip while here, you are again subject to customs search at their discretion.

Other forbidden items include pork products and pornography. To some non-Islamic minds, pornography may include Playboy and Penthouse, but may be only hard core magazines for sure. To the Islamic customs personnel searching your plane, it might include women’s fashion magazines, or even some sports magazines that feature a ladies swimming suit edition. In the interest of a smooth entry to the country, make a search of the aircraft at your last stop and pitch any questionable material.

As air crew, operating internationally, it’s our job to know what to expect in foreign countries. Admittedly, sometimes it’s difficult to find out what awaits you in a new and strange land. The NBAA has the capacity of providing some information. So does AOPA. If nothing else they can furnish a telephone number of someone who is based there or has been there recently. Get on the telephone or telex and find out. The increased communications costs will be more than offset by avoiding the fines and embarrassment associated with the avoidable.

We have to be a bit pessimistic or even paranoid about what perils lurk on the road. Prior to an unfamiliar international trip, take the time to brainstorm with your crew and passengers. See if anyone has thoughts about possible problems. Topics for discussion should include parts availability, special catering requirements, (is acceptable catering even available where you’re going?), medical support for passengers and crew, hotels and ground transportation, security and more.

It’s not just in the Middle East that problems can arise concerning on-board stores. If you plan to stay for more than 24 hours in England, all alcohol and tobacco has to be itemized then locked and stored in a special customs container. Had the flight crew mentioned above tried the same stash trick in England, and been caught by customs, the results would have been the same.

On the opposite side of the coin, another U.S. based flight department showed great forethought for calling an operator in Saudi Arabia for an opinion about whether new-hire or recently upgraded female pilots would be allowed to fly into and out the country. It’s a well-known fact that, in the Kingdom, women are not allowed to drive and are otherwise carefully protected. It took some thoughtful preparation to come up with that question. It also took a few days to  come up with a response from Saudi customs and Immigration. The answer? No problem, as long as they are not after a long term work permit. Isn’t it nice to know that sort of thing before you leave home?