An avoidable Pistol to Boo's head: the case for VIP jet screening

The incident of Johnny Depp's dogs should be the impetus Barnaby Joyce needs to put the topic of dedicated private jet quarantine screening back on the table.


The fate of two high-profile, recently deported illegal immigrants hit the news again today.
A Gold Coast Magistrates Court accepted a guilty plea by the actress Amber Heard for falsifying passenger cards to bring her Yorkshire terriers Boo and Pistol into Australia without declaration.

Yet Heard, who arrived with her actor husband Johnny Depp in tow, need never have been faced with the option of stowing away her pets if long-overdue reforms to passenger processing for private jets had been enacted.

It is the Department of Agriculture stalling these reforms and the buck used to stop at the desk of one Barnaby Joyce, now deputy prime minister, who famously told Heard and Depp that their dogs ought to “bugger off ”.

The truth is that if VIP processing were done off site, as happens in most other countries, quarantine officials would have picked up the pooches before their manicured paws ever touched the runway, saving Heard and Depp the ignominy of facing court.

At Sydney Airport, for those arriving by private jet, passport and customs checks are usually done in a discrete hangar away from the commercial terminal. But this is offered as a courtesy by the Australian Border Force and Department of Agriculture biosecurity officers, and only when rosters permit.

As air traffic grows, putting additional pressure on scarce customs officers’ time and resources, means the processing of business jets suffers. In regional airports, such as the Gold Coast, no such provision for private jets exists.

Customs officers take a keen interest in some flights, if contraband is suspected, but otherwise low-risk passengers, such as Heard, are often waved through passport checks.

But the business aviation industry has been calling for dedicated quarantine inspection service at all private jet bases for many years and has offered to pay for it. The industry wants consistency of service. Melbourne has an impressive new private jet base, but too often has to bus its wealthy passengers to the regular international terminal.  

Sydney and Brisbane fare better, but provision is still at the discretion of the border agents. Arrive at peak hour or in summer and the chances of completing your paperwork in the hangar are slim.

Companies that run private jet terminals, or fixed base operations (FBOs) in the jargon, are more than willing to pay for the permanent stationing of customs, immigration and quarantine staff. The Australian Border Force is open to the idea and agreed in principle two years ago to introduce a new charging mechanism.

The 2014 Review of Border Fees, Taxes and Charges even recommended a user-pays model for private jet off-terminal clearance. A new charging mechanism had been expected in last year’s federal budget. Yet the process has been stymied by the Department of Agriculture. Any new model would require Agriculture’s biosecurity officers (formerly quarantine inspectors) to work alongside Border Force officers in FBOs.

Every international traveller leaving Australia pays $55 for customs, immigration and biosecurity checks to be carried out on them. This amounts to about $1 billion in revenue to the federal government through the Passenger Movement Charge (PMC).

Mindful of another revolt by the tourism industry that forced the Gillard government to abandon automatic increases to the PMC in 2012, the Coalition has ruled out any further increases to the tax in this parliament.

But charging extra for premium passenger processing seems logical. This premium processing, either for commercial passengers or for those arriving in their own planes, would alleviate pressure on agents while also allowing for a consistency of service that airlines and FBOs could market to their high-end customers.

Automation of passport checks and greater use of passenger profiling data means that the main human resource required is for biosecurity officers. If Depp’s Challenger 604 had had been met by a dedicated quarantine officer, paid for by the aircraft operator, Heard’s day in court may never have happened.

The incident of Boo and Pistol should be the impetus Mr Joyce needs to put the topic of dedicated private jet quarantine screening back on the table. The industry wants it, the passengers want it and Agriculture should want it, too.

Article originally appeared on The Age website