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.”
Repo pilot Kevin Lacey looks and sounds a lot like the Dennis Weaver character from the 1970s TV series “McCloud.” Despite the folksy demeanor, Lacey has a reputation as a somewhat Machiavellian aero-sleuth who always gets his airplane. He thrives on the sport of it: tracking an errant commuter airliner to its gate at a big European airport, then pouncing in the hours just before passengers arrive for an early flight. When he tells you he regrets not sticking around to apologize to inconvenienced fliers, you believe him. But he’s also sorry to miss “the expression on that airline agent’s face when they realized their plane was gone.”
Besides pilots and mechanics, Sage-Popovich sometimes recruits other specialists. In Russia and Colombia, where foreigners can be kidnapped, the company rolls with bodyguards. The extra muscle is strictly for self-defense, however. If repo resistance escalates to the physical, “you just have to walk away,” Popovich says.
Well, he says that now. During a repo in the mid-1980s, both sides got physical. A U.S. financier had hired Popovich to snatch a Boeing 720 from a tour operator in Haiti who was in default. Though the aircraft had a book value of only $600,000, an airport manager refused to release it unless a million dollars was deposited in a Swiss bank account. Having made arrangements with an entrepreneurial Port-au-Prince airport employee, Nick showed up around midnight with an air starter (720s lack an onboard auxiliary power unit to start engines). The field had been closed for hours when the team fired up the big turbofans. As he began adding power, Popovich says, “I saw the first tracer rounds streak over the top of the airplane.”
He veered to a stop and Haitian troops swarmed the airplane, bayonetting fuel cells in the wings. “I got out and shoved one of them,” Nick says with a sigh. “The rest of them beat the hell out of me and threw me into the national penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince. A dirt-floor cell with no roof and 35 people in it.” In addition to the million-buck drop in Switzerland, the Haitians wanted $150,000 to release Popovich. “The American embassy did nothing for me,” he grumbles. A week later, however, the regime of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier collapsed. The prison gates were thrown open. “Everyone ran out into the street,” Nick laughs. “But that plane is still down there today. The only commercial aircraft that got away from us.”