Why it’s so easy for the wealthy to fly girls, drugs, or weapons on private jets
North Jersey Record
For years, Jeffrey Epstein allegedly flew underage girls across the country and sometimes around the world in his private jets.
It was easy for him to escape scrutiny — because no government agency was watching.
For the ultra-rich like the billionaire Epstein, private jets create sanctuaries where federal aviation authorities rarely intrude.
They don’t check who’s boarding the plane. They don’t examine suitcases being loaded aboard. They don’t check to see if passengers are underage or on the government’s no-fly list.
“If I own my own 727 privately, there are no security requirements for it. I can just go and jump in my plane, take off and go fly,” said Jeffrey C. Price, an aviation security expert and professor in the department of aviation and aerospace science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Epstein, who made his money as a financier, was arrested on July 6 at Teterboro Airport after flying from Paris. He was charged with two counts of sex trafficking. In the indictment, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said Epstein and his employees operated a sex trafficking network that transported dozens of girls between his homes in Palm Beach, Florida, and Manhattan.
Epstein owned a Boeing 727, a large airplane model that was used until recently by commercial airlines. One of his pilot’s logs shows that Teterboro Airport — owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — had been a hub for much of his alleged criminal activity. His planes flew in and out of Teterboro, in North Jersey’s Meadowlands, at least 730 times from 1995 to 2013, and more than a dozen times with a woman who alleges that she was a minor at the time and one of Epstein’s sex slaves.
Epstein will never see trial. He was found dead in his jail cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City on Aug. 10.
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Price said the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees security on commercial flights, is rarely seen in airports such as Teterboro, which caters to private planes, a category of air travel known as general aviation.
“If you see a TSA agent in there, they’re usually eating lunch,” Price said.
TSA says it “simply does not regulate general aviation aircraft.”
“At a general aviation airport, someone can essentially ‘hop in’ and fly around the country without any security requirements from TSA,” an agency spokeswoman said in an email.
The rich and famous shell out tens of millions of dollars for their own aircraft, and the convenience and privacy that goes with them. When TSA tried to impose more stringent rules on large private planes a decade ago, industry groups fought it, and the proposal was dropped.
What remains is a loose set of security recommendations that TSA says are not mandatory.
Experts said such convenience comes with significant risk to the general public.
“If anyone wanted to duplicate an airliner guided missile attack such as occurred on 9/11 using private aircraft, my personal opinion is, I think it would be very easy, actually,” said J.P. Tristani, an aviation expert and former commercial airline pilot, echoing other experts interviewed by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey.
Industry experts say the owners of private planes police themselves, with large corporations often developing elaborate security to protect their fleets of jets, which they consider a valuable asset. In the insular world of planes owned by wealthy individuals, security often depends on the pilot’s familiarity with the plane’s owner and its passengers, experts said.
The pilot is responsible for raising the alarm about any illegal activity on board and questioning the identity of passengers. But some experts concede it can be difficult for pilots to ask too many questions of an owner — especially if he signs their paycheck.
“The owner of the plane is the king and he brings whoever he wants,’’ said Arie Ramm, a pilot who has flown private aircraft out of Teterboro. “Obviously you see criminal behavior, that’s a different story.”
Flying like royalty
For decades, Epstein flew as a king. The facilities at Teterboro and Westchester County Airport — which his planes used — offer a glimpse into that world, and indicate how Epstein’s alleged international sex trafficking ring may have eluded detection for so long.
At Teterboro, most flights are managed by five fixed base operators, or FBOs. These private companies lease space from the Port Authority. Each operator controls hangars and a section of tarmac where planes are parked, maintained and fueled.
With so many wealthy business leaders and celebrities jostling to park their planes at the only general aviation airport within sight of Manhattan’s skyline, Teterboro operators charge $60,000 per month for indoor hangar spots, according to a pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity because the owner of his plane does not allow staff to speak to the media.
“Teterboro is off the charts for fees,” agreed Philip Greenspun, a private jet pilot and aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s about the most expensive airport in the United States.”
Teterboro’s operators offer lounges for pilots and passengers. One lounge, operated by Jet Aviation, occupies a two-story lobby with wide windows, friendly staff and a table of coffee and muffins. The room has gray walls and black leather couches. Upstairs one can find a private health club and a soundproofed room where pilots sleep. The vibe is similar inside the lobby of Ross Aviation, an operator at Westchester County Airport, with the addition of a machine that offers complimentary blue slushies.
The fixed base operators “all compete for who can have the best facility,” Greenspun said. “It’s definitely a cut above what you get even at a premier airline club.”
Most wealthy jet owners never see inside. Instead they usually pass through a security gate to the tarmac in a black SUV, parking a few feet from the plane’s stairway, two pilots said. The only airport employees who might see a man like Epstein climb into a plane with an underage girl would be those who fuel planes and remove the wheel chocks, several pilots said.
“The rich people don’t pass through any security, really,” said Greenspun.
And at Teterboro, base employees have such high turnover that only a few might have enough experience to recognize possible human trafficking.
“Employees at the FBOs, they have no clue,” said one pilot. “There’s no reason you would ever tell them what’s going on.”
Pilots know what happens on their aircraft, several pilots said.
In later years, Epstein replaced his Boeing 727 with a blue Gulfstream G550 jet, which can cost $60 million new.
On a tour of the same model aircraft parked Thursday at the Westchester airport, one could breathe in the strong scent of soft leather emanating from the captain’s chairs and foldout couches. One could see a display case filled with rows of Baccarat wine glasses, champagne flutes and whisky tumblers, each worth $180. One could control the flat screen TVs and retractable window shades using a computer screen — above an oven.
It was clear this was not economy class on a commercial flight.
The plane also revealed the inherently intimate relationship between jet pilots and owners on such aircraft. The luggage compartment is at the rear of the plane. After loading the bags, at least one pilot must close the baggage hatch from the inside and walk through the cabin, past the passengers, to reach the cockpit.
If young girls are routinely on board, pilots would notice, experts said.
“It’s pretty clear that these pilots would know what’s going on,” said the pilot who didn’t want his name used.
Efficient smuggling machines
Experts said that private aircraft have been used for decades to smuggle drugs, guns, money and people. Price said that airplanes are “just a more efficient way of getting the product to the customer.”
Private jets such as Epstein’s, which fly above 18,000 feet, must file flight plans, and their pilots must talk to air traffic control.
“For something like Epstein, him putting people on his own plane, there would be no security check that the TSA or FAA would have been involved with,” said Price.
The Port Authority declined to comment on Epstein and its own security measures.
The Port Authority Police Department patrols Teterboro. But Price said that the odds of them spotting criminal activity would be “astronomical” because they would not board a private plane without having probable cause.
“The nice thing about general aviation in our country is the ability to move around pretty freely and conduct the businesses that we need to conduct without the encumbrances of all that regulation — not that it isn’t regulated, because it is,” said Darren S. Large, the director of facilities and operations for DM Airports, which is contracted by the city of Morristown to run Morristown Airport. The airport is frequently used by President Donald Trump when he visits his golf course in Bedminster.
Private aviation advocates say that too many regulations would invade plane owners’ privacy.
Thomas Haines, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said privately-owned planes are like cars and should not be singled out for additional regulations.
“People move drugs in cars up and down the interstate all the time and there’s no huge outcry that you have to have an officer inspect your car before you back it out of the garage and leave your driveway because you might be carrying something illegal,” he said.
His group helped to develop a hotline for pilots to report suspicious activity.
Law enforcement authorities said they received an anonymous tip that led to an arrest of a New Jersey lawyer this year in California who was allegedly smuggling marijuana on his Learjet. Court papers say he flew back and forth between Sacramento and Morristown Airport as many as 12 times last year.
Tristani said pilots often see illegal activities on flights and report it anonymously. He said that pilots often gossip to one another about what they have seen on private planes and charter flights, and that he remembers hearing talk about Epstein.
“We don’t know how many pilots drew a line and quit,” he said. “I would suspect that there were pilots that did that.”
Only one of Epstein’s six pilots mentioned in court documents could be reached. He declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation, and said he is “dealing with the authorities.”
International flights are different
There are more rules for international flights. Passengers must go through customs. Pilots must submit a list of everyone on board, including their ages, to customs agents.
These requirements did not prevent Epstein from flying internationally with an underage girl in 2001, court documents show. Virginia Roberts Giuffre was 17 when she boarded a plane that traveled from Palm Beach, Florida, to stops in Paris, Belgium, Morocco and London, according to flight logs unsealed recently in federal court. The logs show Giuffre flew 31 times on Epstein’s planes, including 13 times through Teterboro, beginning when she was 16. In lawsuits and depositions, Giuffre has said she was forced to have sex with prominent men, including Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz. Both men have vehemently denied the allegations.
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It is not clear how Giuffre cleared customs as a minor not accompanied by her parents.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol recommends that if a child is traveling without one or both parents, the minor should carry a letter of consent. Such letters are not required in the United States, but customs may detain passengers while investigating a child travelling without parents. Other counties may require such a letter, the agency said.
Giuffre also was flown seven times in and out of the U.S. Virgin Islands — Epstein owned an island there — where she would have been required to go through customs. Passports are not required. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol says on its website that “it is recommended that travelers bring a government issued photo ID and copy of birth certificate.”
The recommendation is not a requirement.