Grab the Airplane and Go
How to repossess an airliner without getting shot, or thrown in jail, or beat up, or slammed into a wall, or...
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
Courtesy Sage-Popovich Inc.
(Page 2 of 5)
When banks hire the company, they don’t delve too deeply into how the job will be executed. “Not that we would ever do anything illegal,” Popovich says, “but they’d just rather not know how we did it. The rule is ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell—just get our airplane back.’ ”
Jennifer Barlow, the company’s project planner, masterminds a repossession’s complex logistics. There are conference calls with banks and insurers and opinions from lawyers. Then, Barlow says firmly, “We decide what needs to be done.” She does not mean putting a strongly worded reminder in the mail.
She begins compiling a three-ring binder called the Repo Book. It includes affidavits of default, power of attorney, and all the legalese required to satisfy international treaties governing the process: everything that will give the crew the rights of a lawful owner.
Sage-Popovich also makes a determination whether the repo will be “friendly” or “non-friendly.” (Barlow estimates that defaulting airlines cooperate in the repossession of their airplanes less than 20 percent of the time.) In a non-friendly repo, “they’re probably going to try to hide the aircraft from us,” she says. As the airline continues to use the aircraft to make money, it may juggle routes and schedules to frustrate recovery. Charter aircraft, which don’t fly set routes or on timetables, can be particularly elusive. One outfit (Popovich wouldn’t identify carriers presently operating) repeatedly gave the repo men the slip by exploiting Egypt’s loose enforcement of financial covenants. Sage-Popovich arranged for a go-between to charter the desired airplane under the guise of a lucrative U.K. tour-group contract. The eager operator flew the airliner out of its Egyptian haven and landed in repo-friendly Britain. “We just watched and waited until the crew checked into their hotel,” Popovich says, “then we grabbed their plane and flew away.”
The company uses online tracking services and software, but furtive airlines can block the display of tail numbers. They can run, but the Federal Aviation Administration, Transport Canada, and Eurocontrol won’t hide them. Cooperative officials tip off Popovich when the airliner shows up on air traffic screens.
Once the quarry is cornered, the bank may exercise its right to an inspection, to be performed by Sage-Popovich employees. An airworthiness survey and avionics inventory are conducted. Engines are sometimes leased separately and shuffled around within an airline’s fleet, so their provenance is verified. Hands must be laid on the aircraft’s technical records, which the operator has sometimes placed in lockdown. Refusal to surrender them is an anti-repo ploy—an airplane without papers could be devalued as much as 50 percent. Years of expensive maintenance checks would have to be re-performed before the bank can market it. At insolvent airlines, morale is usually in the tank, so Sage-Popovich may need to identify ticked-off personnel to liberate the vital maintenance logs.
Behind standard procedure, however, lurks ulterior motive. “We try to do these inspections in a nonchalant way,” Nigro says, “because often there’s another purpose. It’s really a reconnaissance mission to plot the repossession.” What’s the layout of the airport? How hard will it be to get a repo crew in and out? What routes is the airplane flying?
Back in Indiana, Jennifer Barlow is assembling the team. Pilots are hired as independent contractors. “We get hundreds of résumés,” she says, paging through a binder bulging with applications. Compensation depends on ratings and specialties—and which country the pilots will be required to snatch the airplane out of and how risky the job is. In some situations, Barlow says, “pilots can pretty much name their price.”