6 February 2023 —
Air Partner and Carlson Wagonlit are the grease spinning the wheels of the UK deportation machine, organising logistics for mass-deportation flights for years.
International travel megacorp Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) holds a £5.7 million, seven-year contract with the Home Office for the “provision of travel services for immigration purposes”, as it has done for nearly two decades. However, a key part of its work – the chartering of aircraft and crew to carry out the deportations – has been subcontracted to a little-known aviation charter outfit called Air Partner.
Digging deeper into Air Partner, we found a company which has been quietly organising mass deportations for the Home Office for years. We also learnt that:
- It likely arranged for the airline Privilege Style to carry out the aborted flight to Rwanda, and will seek another airline if the Rwanda scheme goes ahead.
- It has organised deportation logistics for the US and several European governments.
- It is currently one of four beneficiaries of a €15 million framework contract to arrange charter deportations for the European Coast Guard and Border Agency, Frontex.
- The company grew off the back of military contracts, with profits soaring during the ‘War on Terror’, the Arab Spring, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Its regular clients include politicians, celebrities and sports teams, and it recently flew teams and fans to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
- Air Partner was bought in spring 2022 by American charter airline, Wheels Up, but that company is in troubled financial waters.
Air Partner: Home Office deportation broker
In Carlson Wagonlit’s current contract award notice, published on the EU website Tenders Electronic Daily, the “management and provision of aircraft(s) charter services” is subcontracted to Air Partner – a detail which is redacted in documents on the UK government’s procurement site. In other words, when the Home Office wants to carry out a mass deportation flight, the task of finding the airline is delegated to Air Partner.
The contract stipulates that for each charter flight, Air Partner must solicit bids from at least three potential airlines. Selection is on the basis of value for money. However, the contract also states that “the maximum possible flexibility “ is expected from the carrier in terms of dates and destinations. The winning bidder must also be morally comfortable with the work, although it is not clear at what point in the process a first-time deportation airline is fully informed of the nature of the task.
The contract suggests that airlines like Privilege Style, Titan Airways, Hi Fly and TUI, therefore, owe their entry into the UK deportation business to Air Partner, which effectively acts as gatekeeper to the sector. Meanwhile, Carlson Wagonlit books the tickets, oversees the overall operation, arranges deportations on scheduled flights, and liaises with the guards who physically enforce the expulsion (currently supplied by the company that runs Manston camp, Mitie, in a Home Office escorting contract that runs until 2028).
The latest deal between the Home Office and Carlson Wagonlit was awarded in 2017 and runs until 31st October 2024. It is likely that Air Partner makes money through a commission on each deportation flight.
Flying for Frontex
2021 deportation on a Privilege Style flight from Germany. Photo: Michael Trammer.
Yet Air Partner isn’t just the UK government’s deportation dealer. Its Austrian branch is currently one of four companies which organise mass expulsions for the European Coast Guard and Border Agency, Frontex, in a €15 million framework contract that was renewed in August 2022. A framework contract is essentially a deal in which a few companies are chosen to form a pool of select suppliers of particular goods or services, and are then called upon when needed. The work was awarded without advertising, which Frontex can do when the tender is virtually identical as in the previous contract.
Frontex organises deportation charter flights – either for multiple EU states at a time (where the plane stops to pick up deportees from several countries) – or for a single state. The Agency also arranges for individuals to be deported on regular commercial flights.
Air Partner’s work for Frontex is very similar to its work for the Home Office. It sources willing aircraft and crew, obtains flight and landing permits, and organises hotels – presumably for personnel – “in case of delays”. The other beneficiaries of the framework contract are Air Charter Service, Professional Aviation Solutions, and AS Aircontact.
Air Charter Service is a German company, sister of a Surrey-based business of the same name, and is owned by Knightsbridge private equity firm, Alcuin Capital Partners. Professional Aviation Solutions is another German charter company, owned by Skylink Holding. Finally, Norwegian broker AS Aircontact is a subsidiary of travel firm Aircontact Group, ultimately owned by chairman Johan Stenersen. AS Aircontact has benefited from the Frontex deal for many years.
The award was given to the four companies on the basis of lowest price, with each bidder having to state the price it was able to obtain for a range of specified flights. The companies then bid for specific deportations, with the winner being the one offering best value for money. Air Partner’s cut from the deal in 2021 was €2.7 million.
The contract stipulates the need for total secrecy:
[The contractor] Must apply the maximum discretion and confidentiality in relation to the activity… must not document or share information on the activity by any means such as photo, video, commenting or sharing in social media, or equivalent.
The Frontex award effectively means that Air Partner and the other three firms can carry out work on behalf of all EU states. But the company’s involvement with deportations doesn’t stop there: Air Partner has also profited for years from similar contracts with a number of individual European governments.
The company has done considerable work in Ireland, having been appointed as one of its official deportation brokers back in 2005. Ten years later, the Irish Department of Justice was recorded as having paid Air Partner to carry out a vaguely-described “air charter” job (on a web page that is no longer available), while in 2016 the same department paid Air Partner €240,000 for “returns air charter” – government-speak for deportation flights.
Between August 2021 and February 2022, the Austrian government awarded the company six Frontex-funded deportation contracts, worth an estimated average of €33,796.
The company also enjoys a deportation contract with the German government, in a deal reviewed annually. The current contract runs until February 2023.
Finally, Air Partner has held deportation contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and has been involved in deporting Mexican migrants to the US as far back as the early 2000s.1
Relationship with the airlines
In the first half of 2021, 22 of the EU’s 27 member states participated in Frontex flights, with Germany making far greater use of the ‘service’ than any other country. The geographic scale of Air Partner’s work gives an indication of the privileged access it has as gatekeeper to Europe’s lucrative ‘deportation market’, and ultimately, the golden land of government contracts more generally.
For example, British carrier Titan Airways – which has long carried out deportations for the Home Office – only appears to have broken into this market in Germany and Austria in 2018 and 2019, respectively. As Corporate Watch has documented, other airlines such as Privilege Style, AirTanker, Wamos and Iberojet (formerly, Evelop) regularly run deportation flights for a number of governments, including the UK. We can assume that Air Partner’s relationships with the firms are key to these companies’ ability to secure such deals in new markets.
Some of these relationships are clearly personal: Alastair Wilson, managing director of Titan Airways, worked as trading manager for Air Partner for seven years until he left that firm for Titan in 2014. By 2017, Titan was playing a major role in forcible expulsions from the UK.
The business: from military money to deportation dealer
Air Partner’s origins are in military work. Founded in 1961, the company started its life as a training centre which helped military pilots switch to the commercial sector. Known for much of its history as Air London, it has enjoyed extensive Ministry of Defence deals for troop rotations and the supply of military equipment. Up until 2010, military contracts represented over 60% of pre-tax profits. However, in recent years it has managed to wean itself off the MOD and develop a more diverse clientele; by 2018, the value of military contracts had dropped to less than 3% of profits.
The company’s main business is in brokering aircraft for charter flights, and sourcing planes from its pool of partner airlines at the request of customers who want to hire them. It owns no aircraft itself. Besides governments and wealthy individuals, its current client base includes “corporates, sports and entertainment teams, industrial and manufacturing customers, and tour operators.”
Its other source of cash is in training and consultancy to government, military and commercial customers through three subsidiaries: its risk management service Baines Simmons, the Redline Security project, and its disaster management sideline, Kenyon Emergency Services. Conveniently, while the group’s main business pumps out fossil fuels on needless private flights, Kenyon’s disaster management work involves among other things, preparing customers for climate change-induced natural disasters.
Despite these other projects, charter work represents the company’s largest income stream by far, at 87% of the group’s profits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of this is from leasing large jets to customers such as governments, sports teams and tour operators. Its second most lucrative source of cash is leasing private jets to the rich, including celebrities. Finally, its freight shipments tend to be the least profitable division of its charter work.
The company’s charter division continues to be “predominantly driven by government work”.2 It has been hired by dozens of governments and royal families worldwide, and almost half the profits from its charter work now derive from the US, although France has long been an important market too.
Ferrying the mega-rich
Meanwhile, Air Partner’s work shuttling politicians and other VIPs no doubt enables the company to build up its bank of useful contacts which help it secure such lucrative government deals. Truly this is a company of the mega-rich: a “last-minute, half-term holiday” with the family to Madeira costs a mere £36,500 just for the experience of a private jet. It was the first aircraft charter company to have held a Royal Warrant, and boasts of having flown US election candidates and supplying George W Bush’s press plane.3
The “group charter” business works with bands and sports teams. The latter includes the Wales football team, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid, while the Grand Prix is “always a firm fixture in the charter calendar”.4 It also flew teams and fans to the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.5
Crisis profiteer: the War on Terror, the Arab Spring & Covid-19
Air Partner has cashed in on one crisis after the next. Not only that, it even contributes to one, and in so doing multiplies its financial opportunities. As military contractor to belligerent Western forces in the Middle East, the company is complicit in the creation of refugees – large numbers of whom Air Partner would later deport back to those war zones. It feeds war with invading armies, then feasts on its casualties.
The company reportedly carried at least 4,000t of military supplies during the first Gulf War. The chairman at the time, Tony Mack, said:
The Gulf War was a windfall for us. We’d hate to say ‘yippee, we’re going to war’, but I guess the net effect would be positive.6
And in its financial records over the past twenty years, three events really stand out: 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’, the Arab Spring, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror was a game changer for the company, marking a departure from reliance on corporate customers and a shift to more secure government work. First – as with the pandemic – there was a boom in private jet hire due to “the number of rich clients who are reluctant to travel on scheduled services”.7
But more significant were the military contracts it was to obtain during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. During the occupation of Afghanistan, it “did a lot of freighting for the military”,8 while later benefiting from emergency evacuation work when coalition foreign policy came to its inevitably grim conclusion in 2021.
It enjoyed major military assignments with coalition forces in Iraq,9 with the UK’s eventual withdrawal resulting in a 19% drop in freight sales for the company. At one point, Air Partner lamented that its dip in profits was in part due to the temporary “cessation of official hostilities” and the non-renewal of its 2003 “Gulf contracts”.
9/11 and the aggression that followed was a boon for Air Partner’s finances. From 2001-02, pre-tax profits increased to then record levels, jumping 85% from £2.2 million to £4 million. And it cemented the company’s fortunes longer-term; a 2006 company report gives insight into the scale of the government work that went Air Partner’s way:
… over the last decade alone, many thousands of contracts worth over $500m have been successfully completed for the governments of a dozen Western Powers including six of the current G8 member states.
Two years on, Air Partner’s then-CEO, David Savile, was more explicit about the impact of the War on Terror:
Whereas a decade ago the team was largely servicing the Corporate sector, today it majors on global Government sector clients. Given the growing agenda of leading powers to pursue active foreign policies, work levels are high and in today’s climate such consistent business is an important source of income.
Profits soared again in 2007, coinciding with the bloodiest year of the Iraq war – and one which saw the largest US troop deployment. Its chairman at the time said:
The events of 9/11 were a watershed for the aviation industry…since then our sales have tripled and our profitability has quadrupled. We now expect a period of consolidation… which we believe will present longer term opportunities to develop new business and new markets.
It seems likely that those “new markets” may have included deportation work, given that the first UK charter deportations were introduced by the New Labour government in 2001, the same year as the invasion of Afghanistan.
Another financial highlight for the company was the 2011 Arab Spring, which contributed to a 93% increase in pre-tax profits. Air Partner had earlier won a four-year contract with the Department for International Development (DfID) to become its “sole provider of passenger and freight air charter services”, and had been hired to be a charter broker to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Crisis Centre.
As people in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia took to the streets against their dictators, the company carried out emergency evacuations, including for “some of the largest oil companies”. A year later, it described a “new revenue stream from the oil & gas industry”, perhaps a bonus product of the evacuation work.
Finally, its largest jump in profits was seen in 2021, as it reaped the benefits of converging crises: the pandemic, the evacuation of Afghanistan, and the supply chain crisis caused by Brexit and the severe congestion of global sea-shipping routes. The company was tasked with repatriation flights, PPE shipments, and “flying agricultural workers into the UK from elsewhere in Europe”, as well as responding to increased demand for “corporate shuttles” in the UK and US.10 Pre-tax profits soared 833% to £8.4 million. It made a gross profit of approximately £45 million in both 2021 and 2022. The company fared so well in fact from the pandemic that one paper summed it up with an article entitled “Air Partner takes off after virus grounds big airlines”.
While there is scant reporting on the company’s involvement in deportations, The Times recently mentioned that Air Partner “helps in the deporting of individuals to Africa and the Caribbean, a business that hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic”. In a rare direct reference to deportation work, CEO Mark Briffa responded that it:
…gives Wheels Up [Air Partner’s parent company] a great opportunity to expand beyond private jets…It was always going to be a challenge for a company our size to scale up and motor on beyond where we are.
Yet Briffa’s justification based on the apparent need to diversify beyond VIP flights looks particularly hollow against the evidence of decades of lucrative government work his company has enjoyed.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson from the company’s PR firm TB Cardew said:
As a policy, we do not comment on who we fly or where we fly them. Customer privacy, safety and security are paramount for Air Partner in all of our operations. We do not confirm, deny or comment on any potential customer, destination or itinerary.
The parent company: Wheels Up
Air Partner was bought in spring 2022 for $108.2 million by Wheels Up Experience Inc, a US charter airline which was recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company calls itself one of the world’s largest private aviation companies, with over 180 owned or long-term leased aircraft, 150 managed fleet (a sort of sharing arrangement with owners), and 1,200 aircraft which it can hire for customers when needed.
In contrast to Air Partner, its new owner is in deep trouble. While Wheels Up’s revenues have increased considerably over the past few years (from $384 million in 2019 to $1.2 billion in 2022), these were far outweighed by its costs. It made a net loss in 2021 of $190 million, more than double that of the previous year. The company attributes this to the ongoing impact of Covid-19, with reduced crew availability and customer cancellations. And the situation shows no sign of abating, with a loss of $276.5 million in the first nine months of this year alone. Wheels Up is responding with “aggressive cost-cutting”, including some redundancies.
Wheels Up is, in turn, 20% owned by Delta Airlines, one of the world’s oldest and largest airlines. Mammoth asset manager Fidelity holds an 8% share, while Wheels Up’s CEO Kenneth Dichter owns 5%. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Big Three’ asset managers, BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street each hold smaller shareholdings.
Among its clients, Wheels Up counts various celebrities – some of whom have entered into arrangements to promote the company as ‘brand ambassadors’. These apparently include Jennifer Lopez, American football players Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, J.J. Watt, Joey Logano, and Serena Williams.
Given Wheels Up’s current financial situation, it can be safely assumed that government contracts will not be easily abandoned, particularly in a time of instability in the industry as a whole. At the same time, in view of the importance of Wheels Up’s brand and its VIP clientele, anything that poses a risk to its reputation would need to be handled delicately by the company.
It also remains to be seen whether Wheels Up will use its own fleet to fulfil Air Partner’s contracting work, and potentially become a supplier of deportation planes in its own right.
Air Partner has been managed by CEO Mark Briffa since 2010. A former milkman and son of Maltese migrants, Briffa grew up in an East Sussex council house and left school with no O or A levels. He soon became a baggage handler at Gatwick airport, eventually making his way into sales and up the ladder to management roles. Briffa is also president of the parent company, Wheels Up.
Ed Warner OBE is the company’s chair, which means he leads on its strategy and manages the board of directors. An Oxbridge-educated banker and former chair of UK Athletics, Warner no doubt helps Air Partner maintain its connections in the world of sport. He sits on the board of private equity fund manager HarbourVest, and has previously been chairman of BlackRock Energy and Resources Income Trust, which invests in mining and energy.
Kenny Dichter is founder and CEO of Air Partner’s US parent company, Wheels Up. Dichter is an entrepreneur who has founded or provided early investment to a list of somewhat random companies, from a chain of ‘wellness’ stores, to a brand of Tequila.
Tony Mack was chairman of the business founded by his parents for 23 years and a major shareholder, before retiring from Air Partner in 2014. Nowadays he prefers to spend his time on the water, where he indulges in yacht racing.
Some of Air Partner’s previous directors are particularly well-connected. Richard Everitt, CBE held the company chairmanship from 2012 until 2017. A solicitor by training, prior to joining Air Partner Everitt was a director of the British Aviation Authority (BAA) and chief executive of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), and then CEO of the Port of London Authority (PLA). Since leaving the PLA, he has continued his career on the board of major transport authorities, having twice been appointed by the Department of Transport as chair of Dover Harbour Board, a two-day per week job with an annual salary of £79,500. He also served as a commissioner of Belfast Harbour.
One figure with friends in high places was the Hon. Rowland John Fromanteel Cobbold, who was an Air Partner director from 1996 to 2004. Cobbold was the son of 1st Baron Cobbold, former Governor of the Bank of England and former Lord Chamberlain, an important officer of the royal household. He was also grandson of Victor Bulwer-Lytton, 2nd Earl of Lytton and governor of Bengal, and younger brother of 2nd Baron Cobbold, who was a crossbench peer.
Lib Dem peer Lord Lee of Trafford held significant shares in Air Partner from at least 2007 until the company was bought by Wheels Up in 2022. Lord Lee served as parliamentary undersecretary for MOD Procurement under Margaret Thatcher, as well as Minister for Tourism. In 2015 the value of his 113,500 shares totalled £446,000. His shares in the company were despite having been Lib Dem party spokesman on defence at the time. Seemingly, having large stakes in a business which benefits from major MOD contracts, whilst simultaneously advocating on defence policy was not deemed a serious conflict of interest. The former stockbroker is now a regular columnist for the Financial Times. Calling himself the “first ISA millionaire”, Lee published a book called “How to Make a Million – Slowly: Guiding Principles From a Lifetime Investing”.
The company’s recent profits have been healthy enough to ensure that those at the top are thoroughly buffered from the current cost of living crisis, as all executive and non-executive directors received a hefty pay rise. Its 2022 Annual Report reveals that CEO Mark Briffa’s pay package totalled £808,000 (£164,000 more than he received in 2021) and outgoing Chief Financial Officer Joanne Estell received £438,000 (compared with £369,000 in 2021), not to mention that Briffa and Estell were awarded a package in spring 2021 of 100% and 75% of their salary in shares. Given the surge in Air Partner’s share price just before the buyout, it’s likely that the net worth of its directors – and investors like Lord Lee – has significantly increased too.
What really is the difference between the people smugglers vilified daily by right-wing rags, and deportation merchants like Air Partner? True, Air Partner helps cast humans away in the opposite direction, often to places of danger rather than potential safety. And true, smugglers’ journeys are generally more consensual, with migrants themselves often hiring their fixers. But for a huge fee, people smugglers and deportation profiteers alike ignore the risks and indignities involved, as human cargo is shunted around in the perverse market of immigration controls.
In October 2022, deportation airline Privilege Style announced it would pull out of the Rwanda deal following strategic campaigning by groups including Freedom from Torture and SOAS Detainee Support. This is an important development and we can learn lessons from the direct action tactics used. Yet campaigns against airlines are continuously being undermined by Air Partner – who, as the Home Office’s deportation fixer, will simply seek others to step in.
And under the flashing blue lights of a police state, news that an airline will merely be deporting refugees to their countries of origin – however dangerous – rather than to a distant African processing base, might be seen as wonderful news. It isn’t. Instead of becoming accustomed to a dystopian reality, let’s be spurred on by the campaign’s success to put an end to this cruel industry in its entirety.
Appendix: Air Partner Offices
Air Partner’s headquarters can be found next to Gatwick Airport, 15 minutes walk from Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres
Air Partner’s addresses, according to its most recent annual report, are as follows:
- UK: 2 City Place, Beehive Ring Road, Gatwick, West Sussex RH6 0PA.
- France: 89/91 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris & 27 Boulevard Saint-Martin, 75003 Paris.
- Germany: Im Mediapark 5b, 50670 Köln.
- Italy: Via Valtellina 67, 20159 Milano.
- Turkey: Halil Rıfatpaşa Mh Yüzer Havuz Sk No.1 Perpa Ticaret Merkezi ABlok Kat.12 No.1773, Istanbul.
With thanks to Abolish Frontex and Deportation Alarm for their insights.
1 Aldrick, Philip. “Worth teaming up with Air Partner”. The Daily Telegraph, October 07, 2004.
2 “Air Partner makes progress in the face of some strong headwinds”. Proactive Investors UK, August 27, 2021.
4 Lea, Robert. “Mark Briffa has a new partner in aircraft chartering and isn’t about to fly away”. The Times, April 29, 2022