Smuggling Crews in the News

Flight crew

It seems to occur like clockwork, stories of airline employees caught smuggling. Between that and people thinking we get through security and customs with no scrutiny, it’s no wonder there’s this myth that it would be super easy for us to smuggle, and that the practice must be rampant.

True, if I listen for the stories I find plenty. Recently there was the drama of an off-duty pilot who swallowed 62 balloons of cocaine, and had one burst in his stomach mid-flight [*womp womp*]. Just yesterday this story popped up, of a flight attendant caught with cocaine hidden in her waistband (supposedly for her “own use”). A quick google search brings up plenty more stories, like this and this, just for a taster.

However, it gets blurred in many stories that they do not, in fact, involve crew members. The most famous case, the 1999 Operation Ramp Rats – where a smuggling ring was discovered via some heroine that got stashed in a coffee maker and accidentally served by a flight attendant to a pilot(!) – is a prime example. If you don’t remember the story, a fun way to review is the Foo Fighters’ Learning to Fly video, which parodied the story. Over the years it has been forgotten by many that the coffee serving incident did not implicate crew members.

That’s not to claim crew members never get involved with this stuff. The articles linked above prove otherwise, but people think it must be rampant because “it would be easy” for us, right? We must get less scrutiny, you think, if for no other reason than the fact that we’re often waved through certain check points wholesale as a crew and all have certain security clearances. Well, yes and no. As many of us are creatures of habit – tending to work the same destinations over and over – we know of routes where there might be laxer controls. It’s true that I might go a couple of years without a hard look from any customs agents.

However, it’s all very undependable. There always come cycles when all that changes without notice. One day we’re whistling through [foreign city] customs on a crew bus without even having to stop, month after month after month…then suddenly, the hammer comes down for a few months. Every crew bus starts getting pulled over and every crew bag torn apart and punished for the slightest arbitrary-seeming infraction, like having a bottle of water (water!) we didn’t specifically claim on the customs form or possessing a medication without the accompanying prescription. We just never know.

So if crew members time it right, sure, it can be done. They better get the timing right, though, because the searches will come. When they do, customs will probably make an example of anyone they can – and I mean anyone. Global Entry crews are in the crosshairs at some airports right now, and a few people have lost their jobs from what I would have thought were innocuous purchases. (Let’s just say you’re warned: Global Entry checks are unforgiving to the extreme. Don’t even think of sneaking a KinderEgg if you’re using Global.) We went through a period in London a few years ago where crew members were getting arrested – as in taken away in handcuffs – for, say, bringing a bit of milk for our morning coffee. I’d hate to see what happens there to an actual drug smuggler!

The news provides evidence that there are always some who will try, and we all know of a few stories that didn’t make the news, but I think it’s a risk few would take. In truth, otherwise legal goods are a far more likely occurrence. It’s electronics smuggling that some South American countries seem obsessed with (and thus make us register and/or surrender our personal devices for the duration of our layover). French customs is big on looking for cigarettes – the only purposeful infraction I’ve witnessed.

Not that I’d know about everyone’s business – it’s not like ruthless law-breakers are going to tell their colleagues what they’re doing. But I think we usually suspect. We’re observant, and stories get around. I also think we care, as we all end up caught in the soured relations between crews and customs when something goes down. None of us appreciates months of surly, drawn-out searches at 7 a.m. after working all night long, worrying about slight infractions because someone got caught last month for whatever.

While there’s no accounting for possible naïveté, nothing more serious than a bit of small-time greed has come close to me in my flying career. I really hope it stays that way. All I want on my layover is a little milk for my coffee, without the danger of handcuffs.

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Comments (Showing 1 of 1)

  • mmff at 5:09pm June 10, 2014

    Just to be clear, at the end of the day you still bring milk for your coffee? You’re a brave girl! 😉

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