This article was produced in partnership with Capital & Main and USA Today.
As a private jet hired by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transport immigrant detainees landed in Louisiana, heavy smoke filled the cabin. It became increasingly hard for the 168 passengers — guards, officers, crew and undocumented immigrants — to breathe.
Some yelled for help as they choked on toxic fumes for eight minutes. But the pilot stuck to normal procedures, taxiing down the airport runway, and parking, as usual, in front of the Alexandria detention center. By the time they escaped the aircraft, many were dizzy; some were vomiting and required medical attention.
Barely a year later, that same quarter-century-old jet caught fire during a crash landing, and sent shackled passengers struggling to escape as flight attendants discovered that one of the emergency slides didn’t work.
These dangerous incidents on immigration flights — and nearly 100 more — during Barack Obama’s second term and Donald Trump’s early years in office are detailed in thousands of pages of government documents analyzed by Capital & Main.
ICE’s own records show that the agency has long pleaded with its flight contractors to address poor upkeep of planes and insufficient training, which have injured immigrant detainees, guards and crew.
The U.S. government has hired a few private air charter companies to fly hundreds of thousands of immigrants between detention centers across the country, and to airports abroad for deportations, since 2004. The charter flights became more frequent, and more expensive, after the Trump administration intensified immigration enforcement and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted commercial air travel.
ICE spent $204 million on private flights during Trump’s final year in office — more than double what the agency spent the year he became president. And the Biden administration, despite campaign promises to pause deportations while it reassesses immigration enforcement practices, still plans to spend $114 million on charters in 2021.
Private companies operate the planes out of remote airports and secluded runways where they are cloaked in secrecy. But ICE’s own records show that the agency has long pleaded with its contractors to address poor upkeep of planes and insufficient training, which have injured immigrant detainees, guards and crew.
Even as problems with the airlines persisted, the flights continued — and still do, according to internal ICE documents and court records, as well as dozens of interviews with former detainees and deportees, aviation experts, lawyers and advocates.
ICE has an in-house aviation safety unit to oversee its private flights, track problems and suggest safeguards. But reports by these same aviation safety officers reveal that they don’t have authority to enforce their recommendations to contractors.
Watchdogs like the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board also oversee the flights in limited ways. But they don’t have much power or interest in regulating private immigrant detainee transport, several aviation experts said.
“Basically, when you’re flying the contracts for the government, the FAA just throws up their hands and walks away,” said John Goglia, a former aircraft mechanic who served on the National Transportation Safety Board.
Since 2004, the airlines behind immigration flights have charged the U.S. government — and its taxpayers — more than $2 billion.
This accountability vacuum allows ICE’s private air charters to pass the buck, often by blaming other businesses hired to support the immigrant transportation process, or by claiming without proof that they’ve already taken action. As a result, the government continues paying the companies tens of thousands of dollars per flight, even when mistakes cause delays, cancellations or injuries.
Incidents on these chartered immigration detention flights put hundreds of passengers in harm’s way between 2013 and 2019. Advocates fear the worst is yet to come.
The poor safety record of the planes combined with the government’s routine practice of shackling people already translates into injuries and risks lives, according to Rebecca Sharpless, who directs the University of Miami Immigration Clinic and represents undocumented people transported on such flights. “This is a disaster waiting to happen,” she said.
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The airlines behind immigration flights aren’t household names, and they rarely land at major airports. They’re part of a shadow world of contractors that transport immigrants for profit. Since 2004, they have charged the U.S. government — and its taxpayers — more than $2 billion.
ICE contracts just a few main brokers to arrange such flights; CSI Aviation had the job for almost a decade, then Classic Air Charters and Aircraft Transport Services took over in 2019. In turn, those companies hire businesses to provide everything from jets and pilots to crew, guards, nurses and airport services for landing, fuel and maintenance. ICE’s own reports show that many of the companies servicing and carrying out its flights don’t adequately train their staff and struggle to maintain aging jets.
World Atlantic Airlines and Swift Air have operated most ICE flights since 2010. At least two dozen times their jets have malfunctioned, creating toxic fumes, fires, cabin depressurization and other problems. Leading up to the incidents, ICE documented dubious maintenance, training and decision-making.
Mary Houtmann, an ICE Public Affairs specialist, told Capital & Main in an emailed response that the agency used charters for about 12,000 flights between 2014 and 2019 and “follows best practices when it comes to the security, safety and welfare of the individuals returned to their countries of origin.” ICE gets “cost effective and highly flexible flight services” by hiring companies through the General Services Administration and “contract performance is continually evaluated to ensure the contractor is performing in accordance with the contract,” Houtmann said.
Beginning in 2018, she said, ICE started requiring its new flight brokers to submit safety reports to help reduce potential concerns. Capital & Main requested copies of these safety reports two years ago, but the agency has yet to release them.
World Atlantic, Swift Air and CSI Aviation did not answer multiple calls and emails.
The Bourbon Incident
In a private airport hangar in Louisiana, two deportation officers were preparing for an early morning mission on Nov. 9, 2016, when something caught their attention: a Nissan driving erratically around a parked plane. The driver of the car was waving a bottle of Jim Beam out the window.
The officers stopped the driver and discovered he was a World Atlantic mechanic assigned to clear their jet for travel. When a corporal from the local sheriff’s office arrived, the man was swaying on his feet and slurring as he insisted that he’d only had two drinks of tequila. The cop didn’t see any tequila, but he did find a bourbon bottle on the back seat of the car and arrested the mechanic for “disturbing the peace: drunkenness.”
The next day, he was free — and back at work. He hadn’t been fired and still had his airport access cards. Before ICE officers located him, he had climbed into the bellies of two jets being prepped for immigration flights. That led ICE to delay its flights to conduct additional security checks and, ultimately, cancel one of the stops it had planned along the way.
In July 2016, an ICE aviation safety officer raised concerns that World Atlantic wouldn’t allow the agency to review its maintenance manual or inspection program.
Days later, the airline fired the mechanic and updated its protocols for airport access. It was not the only incident involving World Atlantic.
When one of its flights took off from Louisiana to Laredo, Texas a few months earlier in July 2016, a warning light alerted crew to a problem with the suspension system used for landing and takeoff. Afterward, an ICE aviation safety officer raised concerns that the airline wouldn’t allow the agency to review its maintenance manual or inspection program.
“Currently ICE Air Operations does not have the access or ability contractually to make suggestions to an air carrier maintenance program providing the aviation assets for the charter air contract,” the report said.
In 2017, an aircraft engine stopped working midflight, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing. Then the landing gear on a jet failed. “A look at preventative measures would be advised,” a 2017 ICE report recommended. Although World Atlantic was following a maintenance program approved by the FAA and designed to capture most mechanical failures, ICE thought extra precautions were needed.
Whether World Atlantic took those precautions remains unclear. But the company’s track record did not seem to improve.
Hydraulic Fluid in the Air Conditioning
A World Atlantic crew left its home base airport in Miami and arrived at a small Georgia airport in June 2017. As soon as the jet touched down, the cabin filled with smoke. The plane’s ultimate destination was an ICE hub in Louisiana, so the pilot and mechanic decided to continue without finding the source of the problem. As they landed at the next airport, more smoke spewed into the plane.
“Passengers started to yell, telling me to open the door, but the plane was still moving,” a senior flight attendant said in an incident report. “This time the smoke was getting thicker and much more visible.”
Many passengers needed medical help after the evacuation, the report found. Mechanics later determined the cabin’s air conditioning had been spraying a mist contaminated with hydraulic fluid. That flight cost the government more than $26,000, internal records show; it’s unclear whether that included medical bills.
ICE’s aviation safety unit took six months to conclude its report of the incident because the companies involved were slow to respond. ICE determined that the World Atlantic mechanic’s decision to approve the jet for travel without determining the cause of the smoke was questionable. The incident “should have then been thoroughly investigated and cleared through an FAA approved maintenance process,” the report says.
“Passengers started to yell, telling me to open the door, but the plane was still moving,” a World Atlantic flight attendant said in an incident report.
The pilot also ignored pleas from flight attendants and passengers to stop the plane on the runway for a speedy evacuation. Instead, he, the mechanic and an FAA assigned inspector on the flight assumed the smoke was a harmless water drip. The pilot chose not to take the typical precautions they are taught to deploy in case of fire or fumes, the report says.
World Atlantic gave its mechanic “on-the-job training for odor and smell identification,” although the report doesn’t specify what that is and the company did not respond to Capital & Main’s questions. The company also reminded him of the maintenance manual guidance for such situations. Meanwhile, the pilot went back to work without any additional training.
Three months after the incident, ICE tried to to pursue the case by other means and asked its broker, CSI Aviation, “to work with World Atlantic to see if there would be any further actions taken on their part to (ensure) this type of incident did not reoccur.”
CSI Aviation didn’t reply for three more months, during which time the company brokered hundreds of flights: “We have addressed all of your concerns with World Atlantic.” In the same response, World Atlantic said “this matter has been analyzed and closed” as part of the airline’s federally required process for evaluating and updating its maintenance programs in consultation with the FAA.
“No further action is required on this item,” the airline said.
But when ICE’s aviation safety office asked for a copy of World Atlantic’s report, the company declined to share it, agency reports show. Capital & Main also requested it and the company did not respond.
A year later, the same jet had trouble again.
Shackled Immigrants and a Slow Evacuation
World Atlantic flew a plane from Brownsville, Texas to Chicago and on to Kansas City on April 20, 2018, picking up and dropping off immigrant detainees along the way. Roughly 100 detainees, guards and crew were on board when the pilot prepared to land in Louisiana.
As the plane touched down, its right landing gear collapsed and scraped along the runway, causing a friction fire. The pilot stopped and emergency responders arrived to put out the fire. Those on board — including dozens of shackled immigrants — tried to escape. But flight attendants couldn’t get one of the emergency slides to work, blocking a major way out.
Federal transportation safety investigators later determined inspections had been inadequate and failed to detect a crack that caused the landing gear to break during flight. And the inoperable escape slide had been damaged, they said, by another maintenance mistake.
ICE’s initial report stated that no one was injured, but an update clarified that at least five detainees were taken to the hospital.
Ten of the 13 contract security guards on the flight are suing World Atlantic. Their lawsuit alleges that poor upkeep caused the crash and led to them being injured. The company denies negligence and blames the third-party vendor, Miami NDT, that inspected its plane.
“It’s definitely a foreseeable problem and they not only put their crew in danger, but they put all of the deportees in danger as well,” said Larry Lawrence, an attorney representing the guards. Lawrence says the company was aware of the dangers but still took its chances to avoid delaying an ICE mission.
The transportation mission that ended in the fiery landing cost more than $77,000, according to ICE records that don’t specify whether that total included emergency services like firefighting and medical care.
A few months later, ICE hired a new flight broker and implemented a new quality assurance surveillance program that “allows for routine collaborative engagements between ICE and the contractor on any/all performance issues and ICE retains the ability to hold the vendor accountable if there are performance issues,” ICE spokesperson Houtmann said.
High-Altitude Depressurization, an Unbalanced Plane and ‘Overconfidence’
Swift Air, a company that claims on its website to be the largest charter airline in the United States, is another operator frequently hired by ICE over the past decade. ICE reports indicate that Swift Air, now known as iAero Airlines, has also had trouble maintaining its jets and training its crew.
In May 2017, a Swift Air jet flew from ICE’s air operations headquarters at a former military airport in Mesa, Arizona to Dallas to pick up immigrants being deported to Guatemala. After takeoff, an alarm went off. The cabin was depressurizing at 10,000 feet — the level where pressure becomes intense enough to rupture eardrums, and cause oxygen deprivation and other serious health problems.
ICE officers saw some deportees react by unbuckling their seat belts and standing up. Officers, along with hired guards, sought to keep order, forcing one man into a full body restraint blanket and placing a fabric hood over his head designed to ensure someone can’t spit at or bite an officer.
Despite the tense situation, the Swift Air pilots didn’t declare an in-flight emergency. They did descend to a safer altitude and returned to Dallas. All passengers stayed on board after landing while Swift Air’s mechanic searched for the origin of the problem.
It turned out that Swift Air mechanics who had changed the engine two days earlier forgot to tighten a clamp. On the day of the flight, the mechanic troubleshooting the problem couldn’t immediately repair it and ICE canceled the deportation mission, which cost the government agency more than $29,000.
In 2018, ICE determined that Swift Air was “not meeting an acceptable industry standard of surveillance or oversight during heavy maintenance,” according to an internal report.
The next year, on Feb. 6, 2018, a Swift Air pilot took off from ICE’s Arizona headquarters for El Paso, Texas. The plane immediately started rolling to the right and the pilots had trouble keeping it level. The crew suspected a fuel imbalance and turned back. Swift Air found the left wing had around 850 pounds of fuel, while the right had about 6,000 pounds — a dangerous weight imbalance.
Swift Air’s pilots had ignored the jet’s improbable fuel gauge readings, even though the indicator didn’t budge from a total of 14,000 pounds of fuel after idling, taxiing and taking off. Failing to control weight and balance on a jet can stress its structure or destabilize it, which increases the chance of accidents during takeoff or landing, FAA guidance says. ICE reported that the pilots were likely able to maintain control of the jet long enough to return to the airport because only 15 crew members, and no additional passengers, were on board.
Swift Air moved its crew onto a different jet and continued the ICE deportation mission to Mexico.
Later that day, Swift Air refueled the original malfunctioning plane, manually checked the fuel levels with dip sticks and flew another group of detainees between Arizona and California.
Swift Air flew nine multistop missions — including transfers of detainees from Seattle and Jacksonville, Florida — before the problem recurred. On Feb. 28, a Swift Air crew noted the aircraft had 9,200 pounds of fuel. But the fuel gauge for the left wing dropped to zero pounds before departure.
Nonetheless, Swift Air used the plane that day and for two more ICE missions, including deportations to Honduras and Guatemala, roughly a three-hour trip over the Gulf of Mexico.
In total, ICE spent more than $1.3 million for flights on the defective jet.
Swift Air’s mechanics waited several days before following the troubleshooting instructions in the company’s maintenance manual. They found that a connector plug powering the fuel gauge had been disconnected.
ICE’s aviation safety office wrote in its report that Swift Air and CSI Aviation didn’t provide enough information for the agency to determine the exact mistakes made. But the pilots’ errors likely included “compliancy (sic), overconfidence, poor scanning techniques on the flight instruments, haste for departure, inadequate written procedures, and/or failure to use or follow the checklist.”
“It’s one of the worst experiences (of) my life, being on the airplane, all shackled up like that.”
~ Danilo Cortez, deported by ICE to Nicaragua in 2019
Later in 2018, ICE determined that Swift Air was “not meeting an acceptable industry standard of surveillance or oversight during heavy maintenance,” according to an internal report.
On a deportation flight to Guatemala on Aug. 8, the cabin temperature swung from hot to cold despite the crew’s efforts to control it. The problem was traced to an inspection 18 months earlier when Swift Air mechanics left a rag inside the jet’s air ducts.
Swift Air told ICE it would investigate what went wrong and make fixes to its maintenance procedures using an FAA-approved safety management system, which is meant to help airlines improve safety by responding to incidents and predicting potential problems.
In the years since, Swift Air has continued to operate ICE flights nearly every day.
A private aviation investment firm, iAero Group, purchased the airline in 2019 with financing from the Blackstone Group private equity firm, whose CEO Stephen Schwarzman served as a Trump adviser and went on to donate millions to his reelection campaign.
Cuffed at 30,000 Feet
Before ICE boards detainees onto private jets, officers handcuff every immigrant and wrap chains around their waist and ankles. All detainees are restrained like this, whether they are the sole passenger or one of 150, and whether they are heading a few hours away to a detention facility or on a lengthy multistop deportation flight.
Dozens of former ICE detainees told Capital & Main that while shackled they had trouble climbing the stairs to board planes, fastening their seat belts, using the bathroom or eating and drinking.
“It’s one of the worst experiences (of) my life, being on the airplane, all shackled up like that,” Danilo Cortez, a man deported to Nicaragua in 2019, told Capital & Main. “When there’s turbulence, you’re thinking the worst.”
During emergencies, the restraints slow evacuations, internal reports show.
ICE has evacuated at least six flights since 2014. The FAA suggests air operators should be able to get all passengers and crew off of an aircraft within 90 seconds, but ICE’s own documents detail two occasions when the agency’s charter companies failed to come close.
It took seven minutes for one former operator, Falcon Air, to evacuate 115 shackled detainees from a jet after its cabin filled with smoke during an emergency landing in 2014. In another incident, it took 2½ minutes for a contract guard to escort 132 detainees off a World Atlantic jet after a fuel spill in 2017.
ICE’s reports don’t say how long it took to get everyone out during other incidents and don’t detail whether ICE and its contractors have developed special procedures to ensure shackled detainees can safely evacuate.
There is no special safety guidance — or federal regulations — for flying large groups of shackled immigration detainees.
Flight crew give standard safety briefings at the beginning of each flight like those on commercial airlines, according to detainees and a guard who have been onboard. ICE’s charter flight attendants go through the usual advice for emergency procedures, such as putting on life jackets and oxygen masks, using flotation devices or quickly exiting the plane — but they don’t explain how detainees can do so while their hands and ankles are shackled. The presentations are also English-only, although many detainees do not speak the language. ICE spokesperson Houtmann told Capital & Main that the briefings are “in accordance with FAA regulations” and that the agency “utilizes restraints only when necessary for the safety and security of the detainee passengers, flight crew, and the aircraft.”
Crisis responses can also be muddled because security on the planes is managed by a mix of hired guards and ICE officers from various units who have gone through different training. Tight travel constraints often prevent these hodgepodge teams from coordinating before takeoff about who is responsible for doing what in case of an emergency, according to agency records.
Even under normal circumstances, guards and officers sometimes misuse restraints. ICE has reprimanded some of its staff for using handcuff styles prohibited by agency policy and for improperly restraining pregnant detainees, according to internal meeting notes from 2017 and 2018.
At times, ICE wraps detainees in full-body restraints to completely restrict movement, like the man on the troubled Swift Air flight that was supposed to go to Guatemala. Sometimes, ICE leaves detainees that way on flights for hours, according to accounts from deportees and a departmental watchdog investigation obtained by Capital & Main, as well as a civil rights complaint recently filed on behalf of several people deported to African countries.
Such actions would likely complicate detainee evacuations, flight safety experts said.
Nonetheless, there is no special safety guidance — or federal regulations — for flying large groups of shackled immigration detainees. Former FAA and NTSB officials told Capital & Main that neither agency has studied whether such practices are safe.
“It probably just hasn’t come up on their radar,” said Larry Williams, a retired FAA supervisory aviation safety inspector. “A lot of people have no idea that they fly detainees back in chartered airplanes.”
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Despite such problems, ICE has increased its reliance on private jets over the years.
Under Barack Obama, who deported more people than all 20th century presidents combined, the budget for private immigration flights peaked at $95 million, before dropping to $88 million in 2017, the year Trump became president. His administration ramped up spending to an all-time record of $205 million, a nearly 133% increase.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE agreed to pay its air charter brokers higher rates to “maintain vendor operability.” At the same time, several of the companies collected millions in federal pandemic aid from the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans and money from the bailout of airlines. The government considers the companies both airlines and small businesses.
The federal government gave Swift Air $28 million in pandemic loans, and World Atlantic got $8 million. Brokers Classic Air and Aircraft Transport Services received $372,000 and $21,000, respectively.
Although President Joe Biden promised in his campaign to pause deportations, the jets have never stopped flying. A federal judge blocked Biden’s proposed policy change in February, and flights continued — even when unsafe conditions in countries receiving detainees sparked concerns.
In the weeks after Haiti’s president was assassinated in early July, ICE sent deportees to Port-au-Prince on multiple flights. ICE temporarily paused flights in mid-August after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed thousands in the country. Just a month later, flights started up again. More flights are planned for the weeks to come.
“Knowingly forcing deportees to Haiti onto unsafe planes is another link in the chain of dangerous inhumanity,” said Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer who founded the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti where he serves on the board and next week becomes executive director.
Looking ahead, the Biden administration is asking Congress to budget nearly $114 million to keep the ICE flights going — less funding than under Trump, but still an increase from the Obama years.
Copyright 2021 Capital & Main
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