Naturally, the team doesn’t appreciate a welcoming committee. “It’s usually not in our interest to give them any notice that we’re coming,” Popovich says. The phone calls, the certified letters, the sudden inspection—executives at dysfunctional carriers hear the repo clock ticking, but the exact day of reckoning is intended to be a shock. Execution is hour- and even minute-sensitive. “We know where a plane will be at a particular moment. We may not know where it’s going to be tomorrow.”
Then—rock and roll. Sage-Popovich owns a Hawker 700 and a Bombardier Challenger, executive jets that are often used for a SWAT-like opening sequence: “Flying into an airport at night, dumping my crew at the airplane we’re after, and going from there,” Nick says. The airplane is now their legal property, and they act like it. Says Popovich, who still attends about half the repossessions: “Sometimes you’ve got to get ugly and say, ‘You wanna screw with us? We’ll call a federal marshal and you can explain to a judge why you interfered with this repossession.’ ”
When the crew reaches the airliners, the sight they’re greeted with isn’t always pretty. Cut-rate Tower Air kept its wide-body fleet flying by quietly dismantling a trio of 747s leased from GMAC and dispersing the components among its 18 other airplanes. When Tower defaulted, the repo crew arrived to find little more than a shell of GMAC’s collateral. “The fuselages were still there,” Popovich says, “but most of the engines, all the avionics, hydraulic pumps, flight controls, landing gear parts—missing.” As Tower lurched into liquidation, Sage-Popovich rounded up 16 of the carrier’s intact 747s. It was a sweep of jumbos on a global scale. “JFK, Paris, Israel—they were scattered all over the world,” Nick says.
By the time the crew is ready to fly off, the hard part is usually done. Cabin doors on unoccupied airliners aren’t usually locked. The safety of an airliner is predicated on its being parked in a secured location, not on the aircraft having any built-in security features. And once in, you don’t have to hot-wire a 747 because, like all airliners, you don’t need keys to start it up.
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.