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.”
For a small airline, a single forfeiture can be the death knell. But for the airplane, it’s a new life. Before the wheels leave the ground, the bank is already re-marketing the airliner. A fresh paint theme, bold new logos, a spruced-up interior, and it’s a revenue-making magic carpet once more.
With more than 26,000 airliners in the world, one is always ending up in the hands of a failing carrier. And it’s bound to happen eventually—somebody will go deadbeat on the biggest airliner ever built: a 1.2-million-pound, 600-passenger Airbus A380 Superjumbo. Maybe they’ll even try to hide it too. Popovich just shrugs at the gargantuan scale of what will inevitably come next. “It might take us a little time to put together a crew,” he says, “but we’re ready.” This is a man with job security.
Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in southern California.