OSAKA – Beside the prominent entrance to Kansai International Airport’s Terminal 2, which serves several budget airlines, is a nondescript door to which a sign saying Premium Gate Tamayura has been affixed.
This is the entrance through which the world’s rich and famous enter to access a small, quiet lounge with an adjoining area for customs and immigration. From here, they can quickly go through the necessary formalities in a fraction of the time it takes passengers on commercial airline flights.
It was this lounge, which is closed to the general public, that former Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn reportedly entered and exited when he was smuggled out of Japan last month on an Istanbul-bound private Bombardier jet — purportedly in a large audio equipment box that wasn’t inspected before loading.
The auto titan’s embarrassing escape took place as Japan was ramping up the use of business jets by the wealthy, simplifying inspections and taking other measures to improve convenience. Business jet departures and arrivals totaled 16,830 in 2018, up from 11,250 in 2010, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.
Ghosn’s dramatic escape not only highlighted the holes in Kansai airport’s security, but also showed how service for VIPs departing or arriving on private jets differs vastly from those who fly the commercial airlines.
Since then, government officials have been tight-lipped about exactly what happened that day.
On Jan. 19, Justice Minister Masako Mori visited the airport and was given a tour of the Tamayura lounge. Details of what she was shown and said have not been publicly released.
“We continue to investigate the incident, but it’s necessary to create a system that prevents illegal entry into and exit from the country before and during the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” Mori told reporters after her tour.
Officials at the airport have not yet admitted that Ghosn escaped from the facility, but they do say the private jet terminal is not under their direct management.
“As Kansai airport is a private corporation, we lend the premises to a private company that manages it,” said Kenji Takanishi, an spokesman for the airport.
Before Ghosn’s escape, VIPs entering and exiting Japan on private jets likely enjoyed the benefit of not having their luggage checked too closely, a luxury that includes skipping the X-ray inspections typically imposed on all commercial airline passengers. Since private jets are much smaller, the prevailing attitude has been that the typical security checks designed to prevent hijackings or terrorist attacks aren’t really needed because the number of passengers flying is so small and it is unlikely somebody will want to blow up their own aircraft.
In addition, in the relatively small world of private jets, pilots and passengers often know each other, and it is up to the owner or the pilot to decide whether baggage checks need to be conducted — a major security hole that Ghosn exploited.
Kotaro Toriumi, an aviation journalist and part-time lecturer at Teikyo University, gave some possible logistical reasons why Ghosn chose Kansai airport rather than Haneda, Narita or Chubu Centrair.
“Among private jet terminals at major airports, Kansai airport’s private jet terminal is compact and there are not a lot of people around,” he said.
Also, unlike the setup at Kansai airport, where jets can park fairly close to the VIP terminal, there is a bigger separation between the private jet terminals and the parking spots for business jets at Haneda and Narita, which increases the risk of getting caught for those trying to exit Japan without going through the proper procedures.
Things have changed, however.
On Jan. 6, the transport ministry announced that security checks on large pieces of baggage to be loaded onto private jets is now mandatory at the four major international airports: Narita, Haneda, Chubu Centrair and Kansai. All other airports have been directed to carry out thorough security inspections, especially on large pieces of luggage, if they handle international flights involving private jets.
For his part, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura backed the strengthening of security measures at Kansai airport for passengers who use private jets, but noted that the airport, private jet companies and the central government all need to work together to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I don’t think we can say it’s just Kansai airport’s fault. It’s necessary for the central government to beef up its immigration system,” Yoshimura said.
However, Hiroshi Sugie, an aviation expert and former Japan Airlines pilot, says even if airports tighten security for oversized baggage, there are other ways to dodge security.
“Pilots for commercial and private jet firms have ID cards, which they show to immigration officials rather than their passports. Other airline staff also have personal IDs hanging around their necks, and the immigration staff don’t check each facial photo on each ID to confirm the photo matches the person wearing it,” Sugie said.
“It’s not difficult to make a fake ID card and pass through immigration with other staff members. So, while it’s possible Ghosn escaped in an audio box, another possibility is that the pilot and the VIP customers, who were Turkish, all formed one group and got through immigration because officials thought they all looked the same,” he added.