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09 Feb 18

Leaked: Twelve Air Serbia Pilots Flew Unvetted in 2017


Air Serbia’s fleet could be grounded after it used pilots who flew internationally despite not completing mandatory security checks by the Ministry of the Interior or security services.

Milorad Ivanovic BIRN Belgrade

Twelve pilots flew international passenger planes for Air Serbia during 2017 without undergoing mandatory vetting by the Ministry of the Interior and BIA, the country’s security service, that would ensure they have not been convicted or prosecuted for a criminal offence, BIRN has found.

“Twelve AviGo pilots (10 on Boeing 737, one on ATR 71, and one in training on the ground) flew based on contracts from 2017 without being subjected to appropriate security checks pursuant to chapter 17 of Air Serbia’s Aviation Security Program,” says a report by Air Serbia’s investigative team, a copy of which was leaked to BIRN.

AviGo started working with Air Serbia in 2014. The report notes that in 2015, representatives of Air Serbia had trouble identifying the real owners of this company.

The report states “there is no evidence that Air Serbia hired a reputable company which provided brokerage services for employing pilots.”

Employing pilots through a broker, however, is not unusual or problematic practice.

Petar Vojinovic, Editor-in-Chief of the specialized aviation portal Tango Six, says that employing through a broker is not in itself bad practice, and that it is a system commonly used by much larger and better-known air carriers.

“RyanAir, Wizz Air, and other major companies work with broker companies due to the dynamics of the pilot market. Broker companies are used to find you pilots in a quicker and more affordable way as part of the whole package.”

In total, 40 per cent of the 56 pilots hired by Air Serbia through broker company AviGo between 2014 and 2017 were not vetted.

This could result in significant fines and the suspension of the Serbian national airline’s air transport license by the government, according to the November 2017 report.

“This is a major oversight that poses a considerable amount of risk to passenger safety and the airline itself.”

The leakedreport was prepared at the initiative of the Ethics and Compliance Department of Air Serbia.

Its investigative team was formed in October 2017 in order to investigate possible violations in the cooperation between Air Serbia and Dominica-registered broker, AviGo LTD, through which the Serbian airline hired these pilots.

Bosses at Air Serbia were invited to verify the report and to comment on whether the firm had acted upon it, but did not reply.

BIRN learned that Civil Aviation Directorate of Serbia, the government’s lead institution in charge of applying safety standards in civil aviation, had not seen the document “since it is a company memo, made for internal use”.

The directorate is, legally bound to react based on information that the Law on Air Traffic has been broken.

Following publication of the article, Air Serbia sent a statement to BIRN writing that the company “adheres to all regulations governing the field of air traffic safety" and that "the safety of passengers and aircraft was not questioned at any given moment.

"When it comes to security checks of pilots, their permits and all other documents have been checked by the competent authorities,” the statement says.

Air Serbia also stated that: “Until the latest harmonisation of domestic regulations with European aviation legislation, which was carried out at the end of 2016, a security check meant that the company would be delivered a certificate that a person was not convicted and that no procedure was being conducted against that person, which all of our employees did.

“After November of the same year, based on the, at the time, new regulations, security checks of all employees were initiated.

“A large number of requests were submitted to the authorities, and the process was slowed down by a security check for foreign nationals pilots, [a process] which is more complex than [the process] for domestic citizens.”

“We emphasize that the document you are referring to was internal and that served as the analysis on at what stage the security checks' process is".

BIRN contacted Risk Allen, Senior Vice President of Flight Operations at Etihad Airways, which since 2013 has owed 49 per cent of the company and which currently manages it. He promised to look into the case, but he later responded refusing further comment.

System errors

The Ministry of Interior and BIA conduct security checks at the request of the airline hiring the pilots, in this case Air Serbia.

Vladimir Milicevic, pilot of the former JAT, says that each country has its own set of rules when vetting pilots.

“At the time of the former Yugoslavia, assessments included the police, military, intelligence agencies, judicial system… They visited neighbors, asked about your family. I know great pilots who did not pass these kind of security checks and their careers were ruined,” Milicevic explained.

Milicevic says that nowadays things are simpler in European countries. Individual requests are filed with the competent authorities, and the report is received in just a few days. These report check whether a person was convicted, examine their credit records and whether they have been charged with a misdemeanor.

“In Israel, however, this process is more rigorous than it was in former Yugoslavia. They check whether you’ve been to an Arab country, what you did there, whether there is a connection to terrorism,” Milicevic says.

The report states that in the process of hiring the pilots, Air Serbia's Flight Operations Department files a vetting request with the HR Department, which then forwards the complete documentation to the company's Security Department, which runs the security check with the state authorities.

Serbian regulations do not define in detail what the security checks of the Ministry of Interior and BIA entail, but they would, at a minimum, include checking whether the person had ever been convicted of a crime, and whether there were pending misdemeanor or criminal proceedings against this person.

The report also states that apart from the AviGo pilots, another 101 (18 percent) members of cabin and flight crew of Air Serbia have not undergone the mentioned procedure.

The report further states that all pilots of AviGo had crewmember identifications issued by Air Serbia's Security Department, even though some of them had not been vetted.  

The Serbian Law on Air Traffic says that before an identification card is issued, “the ministry responsible for interior affairs and special organization responsible for security and intelligence affairs [must] perform security checks of all persons who are issued ID.”

Air Serbia's team that compiled the report was led by a senior internal audit manager, and support was requested from the competent services in Etihad Airways.

Responsibility and consequences

Paul Hudson, president of „Flyers Rights”, the largest airline passenger organization said to BIRN that „national agencies for airlines safety can normally fine airlines for such violations, suspend pilots or in extreme cases ground an airline”.

A source from the European Commission says for BIRN that “Serbia is a member of the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) and therefore bound to apply a number of aviation safety and security rules. It is for Serbia to check that the air carriers it certifies fulfills these rules”.

The taskforce that supervised the investigation was made up of internal audit, human resources, security and legal affairs representatives.

On November 27, 2017, the report was delivered to the former CEO Dane Kondic. One month later, he resigned, citing “personal reasons”.

Apart from Kondic, the report was also delivered to Branislav Malovic, Officer for Relations with Government Bodies and Organizations and Member of Executive Board, Duncan Naysmith, current CEO, and at the time Chief Financial and Business Transformation Officer, Danijela Popadic, company's General Counsel and Company Secretary and Marko Babic, ‎HR Director.

BIRN contacted all of the above listed for a comment, but none of them responded to our queries.

 NOTE: This article has been updated on 11pm, February 9, to include a response from Air Serbia.