Enhanced control of light aviation in West Africa

21 June 2017
By Philippe Haan, Regional Customs attaché, French Embassy in Dakar, Senegal

Although the term has not been defined in international law, it is commonly held that light aviation comes under the heading of general aviation, a generic term covering all civil aviation operations other than commercial transport, in other words sports and leisure aviation, aerial work and private aviation. Small aircraft, helicopters, gliders and microlight aircraft fall within this category.

Any deficiency in the management of this ‘small-scale aviation’ poses risks. On the one hand, there are tax risks, and care must be taken to ensure that the aircraft in question have been the subject of a Customs declaration and that the appropriate taxation regime has been applied. There are also risks associated with commercial fraud, illegal trade and safety, which implies a requirement to ensure that the aircrafts are not being used to transport prohibited items, or undeclared goods and passengers.

Aware of the low level of monitoring of light aviation traffic in their respective countries, several Customs administrations in West Africa have been engaged, since 2012, in a capacity building project for law enforcement agencies, focusing on the monitoring and control of light aviation and of operators of non-scheduled services, also known as “flights on demand,” in their region.

Before this specific project is presented, it is pertinent to summarize the regulation of this form of transport, the risks it poses, and the various existing control strategies.


To enable the administrative authorities to exercise effective control over international movements of aircraft within the realm of general aviation, national legislators generally require the following information to be communicated:

  • the flight plan;
  • documentation on the legal and fiscal status of the aircraft;
  • documentation on its freight;
  • documentation on its passengers and their baggage.

International airports are subject to in-depth security and safety checks in the light of guidelines framed by competent national authorities and international bodies, particularly in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, but what of secondary airfields?

Risks and modus operandi

According to the authors of a recent study conducted in France by INHESJ, the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Security and Justice, there are various ways in which goods are imported fraudulently by means of light aircraft. In the case of narcotics, the study states that the commonest method involves drugs being carried, almost unconcealed, in sports bags; the pilot has no flight plan, the transponder is switched off, there is no radio contact, and the aircraft flies at daybreak or overnight at low altitude with no lights. These are extremely high-risk operations which require real handling skill on the part of the pilot and the use of night-vision technology.

In a contrasting modus operandi, traffickers exploit the advantages of business aviation, well away from the formalities that apply to commercial flights. According to the study, organizations that use business jets can hire an aircraft and a crew at very short notice. This freedom also makes it possible to divide a journey into stages. A jet can travel thousands of miles and can easily cross the Atlantic. The pilots comply with aeronautical obligations and adhere to the rules of the air, with opening and closing flight plans. Business aviation is characterized by flexibility, one example being the possibility of changing destinations in flight. When that is done, it is very difficult for investigators to identify any illegal use of an aircraft and to foresee where it will land.

Control procedures

Responses to this risk are manifold. Some countries monitor their air space by means of radar, which enables them to identify clandestine flights (transponder switched off) and suspect flights (discrepancies between filed flight plans and radar trajectory, or analysis of flight plan history), carrying out airborne interceptions where necessary.

Surveillance of airfields is also essential, but may be difficult to implement. To this end, a risk assessment may be carried out by means of risk mapping, focusing on various criteria such as accessibility and protection of infrastructure. Airfields and the aircraft based there have to be registered and checked. In the Netherlands, some secondary airfields are monitored with the aid of an automatic number plate reader, surveillance cameras, public address systems in buildings and hangars, and sound sensors for the identification of any night flights.

As for the checking of aircraft themselves, risk indicators have been defined and incorporated into Volume 2 of the WCO Customs Risk Management Compendium, which contains a section on air cargo risk indicators. The Airports Group, a forum within the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe, has also compiled a list of some 20 risk indicators.

Work on international flights, moreover, involves enhanced cooperation with the authorities of neighbouring countries. This cooperation also serves to generate synergy between the bodies concerned – Customs, police, the gendarmerie and the airport authorities; it is also conducive to more efficient cooperation among the countries of the region.

African Wings

While some countries, particularly the Andean and North American countries, have long histories of controlling light aviation, the countries of Africa are comparative novices in this field, despite the fact that the transport channel offered by light aviation is being used increasingly by criminal organizations, and that many aircraft do not comply with the applicable regulations.

Enabling inspection services to exercise their legal prerogatives in this domain and so building the capacity of countries in the region to oversee light aviation is the purpose of a project known as African Wings, which was initiated by French Customs in 2012, with financial support from MILDECA, the Interministerial Mission for Combating Drugs and Addictive Behaviours – a French agency under the authority of the Prime Minister which leads and coordinates French governmental activities designed to combat drugs and drug addictions.

It may be recalled that capacity building initiatives had previously been launched in Senegal and Mali and that Operation Senegalese Wings then Operation Malian Wings were mounted to test the feasibility and relevance of the project.

Once this test phase had been completed, it was a matter of launching training activities and providing several countries in the region with equipment in order to raise awareness among their operational airport services and build their crime detection capacities. All bodies with monitoring responsibilities within the airport structure – Customs, police, immigration authorities and bodies with a specific remit to combat the development of fraud at the airport – were involved, the objective being to enhance cooperation between authorities and, in particular, to establish systematic exchange of useful information, particularly regarding flight plans, landing times and flight records of particular aircraft, so as to enable Customs to exercise proper control.

Lastly, between 2014 and 2016, a series of operations, combining the Customs services in the region and the relevant security services, was launched by French Customs in close cooperation with the WCO and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Three operations, involving 10, then 15 and finally 18 countries, enabled participants to put their acquired knowledge to the test, and to gather information on light aviation movements within the West Africa region.

All of the procedures that were established for the first operation, including those relating to the collection of information, such as the content of flight plans, from airport authorities, were new to most of the participants. Today, those participants appear to have mastered the working methods and to have acquired the essential ability to respond instinctively.

Identified frauds

The inventory of airfields and checks that were made during the African Wings project and then incorporated into the routine practices of Customs services highlighted the non-compliance of numerous aircraft. Many planes were seized because of tax fraud and the infringement of Customs regulations pending payment of outstanding taxes and duties by their owners.

A CESSNA 150, belonging to the Bamako Aero Club, seized by Mali Customs as its owner could not present a document to prove its legal importation

Customs also looked into the supply channels for fuel, crop-spraying, spare parts, aircraft stores and equipment for ground handling companies. In addition, Cargo items were seized: observation drones; arms; drugs; currency; and items regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

All players involved in airport operations benefited from the project. Airport authorities, for example, were able to shed light on the question of aircraft parking locations, because some aircraft were being parked on military stands to avoid paying parking charges, or to obtain uncontrolled runway access.


During African Wings operations, a common database is used to record all aircraft registered or observed at the targeted airports. Fed directly by the surveillance units, it lists aircraft by model and registration identifier, owner and activity, check date, and declared destination. Countries taking part in an operation can thus obtain a clear picture of the pool of aircraft in each country, which opens up new prospects for regional activity and cooperation, especially as regards temporary admissions.

The database, moreover, serves to improve the visibility of movements of small aircraft and to establish more exhaustive oversight of air traffic. The objective is to arrive at risk profiles that will enable all authorities working within the airport perimeter to refine their targeting and control methods.


A fourth operation is planned for 2017, the objective being to ensure that the progress achieved in building airfield control and targeting capacity will be sustained. It can already be confirmed that the African Wings project has served to strengthen the powers of the Customs services over this transport channel.

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