£99K and a fake passport: How Carlos Ghosn escaped Japan on a private jet

Jan 3, 2020

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We are more than 48 hours into 2020, but the escape of former auto CEO Carlos Ghosn from Japan will probably have few, if any, rivals for the craziest story of the year.

You’ve seen it already: under strict house arrest in Japan and awaiting trial for various financial crimes, the former boss of Renault and Nissan escaped and turned up in Lebanon on Monday. It was an exceptionally daring feat, an embarrassment for Japan, and a mystery.

How did one of the most recognizable people in all of Japan, whose name was without doubt on every watch list, manage to slip through immigration — in a famously well-organized and hyper-technological nation, to boot?

According to Lebanese news site MTV, as cited by Western media, Ghosn flew out of Japan hidden inside a case for a large musical instrument. He, or someone working with him, had arranged for a band to play at his home, evidently in order for Ghosn to then be spirited away inside the case. Ghosn is reported to be about 5’6”, and the largest instrument typically used in orchestras, the double bass, can be as tall as six feet, making an escape inside a bass case incredible but quite feasible.

(In a case of erroneous translation from MTV’s original Arabic, Western media sources including for example The Guardian said it was a “Gregorian band” — a musical impossibility, since Gregorian chants are performed a cappella, without instruments. In fact, the Arabic mentioned no such thing. The band story hasn’t been verified independently, either.)

Bass case or not, one thing is sure: Ghosn did not fly commercial out of Japan. Just like he used to do when he was the CEO of one of the largest automakers in the world, he flew private. According to the Wall Street Journal, there’s only one private-jet flight out of Japan matching what is known of Ghosn’s journey: a Turkish-owned plane from Osaka to Istanbul, leaving on Sunday evening and landing in Turkey on Monday morning, 30 December.

But how could Ghosn slip aboard?

“If you have money, you can do this”, said Jeffrey Price, professor of Aviation Management at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It’s kind of like renting a limo or an Uber”.

According to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, that money was at least $130,000 (£99,400) and likely a lot more. That’s probably not a big stretch for a man who could post a $9 million bail in cash to get out of jail last March.

Flight-tracking site FlightAware shows a Turkish-registered private jet with the national tail code TC-TSR flying from Osaka to Istanbul on that date, passing exclusively over Russian airspace on the way from Japan to Turkey. That plane was a Bombardier Global Express, a large biz jet belonging to Turkish charter operator MNG Jet, which lists it in a PDF brochure on its site.

According to Air Charter Guide, chartering it costs $10,000 (£7,600) an hour. With 12 hours’ flight time from Osaka to Istanbul, Ghosn was looking at $120,000 (nearly £92,000) just to get out of Japan — and then he had to get to Lebanon, his family’s ancestral country. (He is a Lebanese, French and Brazilian triple citizen.) That took another hop from Istanbul to Beirut, which according to the Journal was in another, smaller jet owned by MNG.

Inside the MNG Jet Bombardier Global Express (Screen grab from MNG Jet virtual cabin tour)
Inside the MNG Jet Bombardier Global Express (Screen grab from MNG Jet virtual cabin tour)

Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouriya reported, according to a French journalist, that the second plane was a Bombardier Challenger 300. Air Charter Jet lists its price per hour at $5,000 (£3,800); with the flight time from Istanbul to Beirut, that’s another $10,000 (£7,600).

So we’re at $130,000 (£99,400), without factoring in the cost of the team that helped Ghosn escape. For example, French business newspaper Les Echos quoted unspecified sources as saying that Ghosn used a fake passport to get out of Japan; he must therefore have paid a criminal network for the fake ID, on top of whatever money the people who spirited him out might have demanded. We know that seven people — four pilots and three ground-services employees — have been arrested in Turkey in connection with the escape.

Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn (R) leaves his residence in Tokyo on April 3, 2019. - Ghosn was freed from a Tokyo detention centre on March 6 after his shock arrest on November 19 when Japanese prosecutors stormed into his corporate jet. (Photo by JIJI PRESS / JIJI PRESS / AFP) / Japan OUT (Photo credit should read JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn (R) leaves his residence in Tokyo on April 3, 2019. He was freed from a Tokyo detention center on March 6 after his shock arrest on November 19 (Photo by JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s safe to say that none of this would have worked — or would have been immensely harder — on a commercial flight. A fake name and a disguise, indispensable for a face as recognizable as Ghosn’s in Japan, would have been enormously risky on a normal flight, through the usual passport controls.

But for private jets, “the requirements are very loose”, Price said. “Passengers on some large charter flights in the U.S. are checked through the no-fly/selectee list, but otherwise they just make sure your money is good and check your ID and off you go”. 

Again, the key there is money. Not a problem for a man with a reported net worth of $120 million. “When you slap down a credit card at a charter operator and say, I’d like a flight from Denver to Newark and you don’t even blink when they charge you $30K for a one-way flight, they aren’t going to ask you a lot of questions at that point”, Price said.

Japan might have different regulations from the U.S., but all over the world private aviation is subject to far less stringent rules than commercial airlines about who gets on board. “If a company is not comfortable flying someone, they don’t have to,” Price said. And from what we know at this point, MNG had no problem flying a man it probably did not know was Carlos Ghosn. 

Marc Stewart contributed reporting for this story.

Featured image by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

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