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 4 of 5)
In case of last-minute snags—like testy airport personnel refusing to tug the airplane out—thrust reversers can be used to power back from the gate. See ya.
Still, countermeasures happen. Airline employees might lock aircraft to ramp vehicles, or chain a cockpit window open so the airplane can’t be pressurized. Over-loyal employees have created awkward moments: “We’ve had guys get on the airplane while we were taking it and refuse to get off,” Popovich says. Employees have also called security to report an airliner being “stolen by terrorists.” Popovich has been offered cash—$150,000 once—“and all sorts of things” as inducement not to take an airplane.
It’s not just airlines that put stumbling blocks in Popovich’s way; local bureaucracy can make life difficult for his team. When the French carrier Fairlines defaulted on its fleet of tricked-out MD-80s, Sage-Popovich got the call. After scoring one in Italy, Nick set his sights on another known to frequent Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. He found it at Terminal 1, neatly surrounded by orange cones to prevent access. (Yeah, that’s going to stop him.) Some sort of document—it would turn out to be a judge’s order grounding the airplane due to unpaid fuel bills—was taped to the cabin door. “But it was all in French,” Popovich says, “so I just tore it off.”
His team ran through the checklists and lit engines. Immediately, a jeep-load of gendarmes appeared and Popovich was hauled before a magistrate. “In my infinite wisdom, I admitted that there was something posted on the aircraft’s door,” he recalls. “But I informed the judge that if it was really so important, it should have been in English, since that’s the official language of aviation.” The next day he was escorted, in handcuffs, to the first U.S.-bound flight and sent home.
Popovich and team flew to Madrid and reentered France via rail. At de Gaulle they found the MD-80 still grounded, with tanks drained and more French fine print attached. An Air Afrique Airbus next to it was being refueled. Popovich talked to the captain and got him to sell enough fuel to get as far as Iceland. “Everyone was going to be looking for us,” he says, “so I wanted to get out from under Eurocontrol ASAP.” He had already exercised power of attorney to de-register the aircraft from its Luxembourg flag and had obtained a U.S. registration number. The de Gaulle tower cleared the now-American plane for taxi and takeoff. Popovich landed in Iceland with less than 30 minutes’ worth of fuel remaining.
In one case, government intervention dragged the repo out for months. Kevin Lacey had been assigned to get a trio of 737s out from the interior of Brazil. The airplanes belonged to state-owned VASP Airlines. For 75 years it had been the pride of Brazilian aviation, but it had gone bankrupt. Making matters worse, says Lacey, “everybody hates Americans down there anyway.” And the Brazilian army wanted to retain the airliners for military use. While in Brazil, Lacey was put under house arrest, then deported. He returned, and a judge allowed him to take possession of the airplanes but not fly them out of Brazil. To keep them away from the Brazilian military, Lacey took them to the most remote airstrip he could find. Eventually, the court ruled in the company’s favor, releasing two of the three airplanes. The other was ultimately paid off with insurance money and left behind.
In some countries the Sage-Popovich brand raises red flags, so to get confiscated airliners through foreign air traffic control, the repo crew has to finesse them. To file flight plans and overflight permits, the company will enlist a third party—“Somebody with a name that doesn’t carry the connotation we do,” Popovich says. To spring an airplane encumbered by local financial liens, six-figure wire transfers from a U.S. bank are sometimes required too. Might payoffs to the right officials—in the sort of locales that would prefer cash—also expedite the vanishing of a multi-million-dollar airliner? Popovich quickly corrects my terminology. “We negotiate with them,” he says, smiling. “It would be against the law to pay them off.”
Ultimately, the perfect repo is the one that never happens. Al Nigro recalls a European carrier in default on two wide-bodies, and flaunting it: “Every day they kept flying those big planes full of passengers in and out of JFK [in New York City], but not paying the rent.” While the lessee brazenly reaped revenue, the lessor chose the Nick Popovich nuclear option. Since it was mid-November, the repo man advised a waiting game: A seizure in December would raise the spectre of hundreds of stranded holiday travelers and lots of bad publicity. “We really weren’t trying to put the airline out of business,” Nigro explains. “We were just making sure we had maximum leverage against them.” As the festive season approached, Popovich prepared to nab the airplanes (“It was like watching a python getting ready to strike,” Nigro says), including notifying dismayed JFK airport officials of his intention. One tipped off the airline, which promptly grounded the airplanes in their home country. “Nick was furious,” Nigro says, “but almost immediately the airline CEO phoned me and said, ‘Okay, you’ve got us. We’ll pay whatever we owe. Just promise not to take our planes if we come to New York.’ The money was at the bank in full the next morning.”