Security concerns are being raised at some of Canada’s smaller, private airports after a 20-year-old man with mental health issues stole a plane from a small airport in Markham before crashing it in Peterborough last week.
On Thursday, Global News revealed the RCMP was investigating the crash as a “national security issue” and had met with the father of suspect Mohammad Hassan Chaudhary multiple times to discuss his son’s involvement.
The Mounties said Thursday that there was “no national security aspect.” They followed that up with another statement Friday which confirmed the Ontario RCMP Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) had been involved in the investigation.
Aviation expert Jock Williams expressed concerns about the airport’s security.
“It’s an excellent little airport, out south of Stouffville, but there is really no security,” Williams told Global News, adding he used to regularly store a plane at the airfield. “There is farm type gate that is locked on the highway, which anybody could climb over in 10 seconds.”
Williams also said the planes are frequently left unlocked as the potential damage if a thief were to try and gain access would cost thousands.
“We leave our planes unlocked because a person breaking into a plane could do tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage and cause the plane to be grounded until it was fixed,” he said. “Whereas if you leave the door open, the person opens the door, looks in, finds that there is nothing to steal and goes away.”
Chaudhary’s father Afzal Chaudhary told Global News he was outraged his son, who lived with schizophrenia and other mental health issues, was able to break into the airport, steal a small aircraft and crash into the streets of an Ontario city without any intervention from police or security officials.
But the problem isn’t limited to the Markham airport. Security expert David Hyde said while the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority has a mandate to provide a certain level of security at larger airports, this oversight doesn’t exist for community and smaller airports.
“The physical security around the smaller airports is obviously much less rigorous than that around major airports,” Hyde told Global News.
“These more regional, perhaps almost part-time airports where there is not a lot of activity, it’s not fully under CATSA’s mandate for standards of protection. The security gets quite a lot lower and certainly in some cases can lead to concerning incidents like this one.”
According to its website, CATSA is responsible for security screening of people and baggage at 89 designated airports in Canada.
Mathieu Larocque, a spokesperson for CATSA, said the agency is not responsible for perimeter security at airports.
“The airports where we are present we are not responsible for the security of the airport,” said Larocque. “The security of the airport itself, like the airport perimeter, access to the tarmac, security guards at the airport, that is local responsibility handled individual airport authorities.”
So who is responsible for security at private airports in Ontario and elsewhere across the country? It’s unclear.
Transport Canada says on its website there is no standard for “the security of private air operations.”
“Although there is currently no International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard for the security of private air operations, Canada, along with a number of its major international partners are in the process of developing plans to enhance general aviation security,” the agency says.
In a statement to Global News, Transport Canada said said any “operator of an aerodrome must have, at all times, at least one security official or acting security official” under Canadian Aviation Security Regulations.
“Canada has a risk-based approach to aviation security, and within this framework, Transport Canada works in partnership with airport associations and regional airport councils to maintain and improve the safety and security of civil aviation at aerodromes in Canada,” said a spokesperson for Transport Canada in an email.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told Global News there is currently an investigation into the Peterborough crash and wasn’t able to comment specifically on private airport security measures.
Patrick Gillian, vice president of operations with the Canadian owners and pilots association, said the theft of planes is so rare most private airports and aerodromes (small general aviation airfields) don’t need additional private security.
Gillian said the owners of private airfields sometimes use a series of security cameras and locks on hangars and planes. He added there wasn’t necessarily a need for further oversight from federal agencies.
In an incident in Newfoundland earlier this month, a 32-year-old man was charged with flying without a licence after stealing a float plane for a reported joy ride.
*With files from Cindy Pom, Adam Miller, Allison Vuchnich and Global News