Exclusive: Airline Flies Snowbirds to Mexico, Deports Immigrants for ICE
The same planes taking vacationers to Cancun are also flying deportees to Latin America.
”Think beyond a flight. Charter an experience,” Xtra Airways, a Coral Gables, Florida-based charter airline beckons on its sharp red, white, and blue homepage.
Xtra’s site describes its “customer profile” as consisting of package tour operators, dignitaries, rock stars, even to an entire audience between NYC and LA for a taping of “Ellen.” For their part, Xtra’s flight attendants describe themselves as “fabulous!”
Xtra has also operated charter flights for Funjet Vacations, which flies from the Midwest to Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as similar service for Apple Vacations, a subsidiary of the Apple Leisure Group, which also owns CheapCaribbean.com.
What Xtra Airways doesn’t go out of its way to publicize is that it has spent years transporting deportees to many of those very same places for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In addition to operating government-owned planes, Xtra has its own fleet. So that same pilot taking you to sunny Cancun could have been flying deportees back to Latin America a short time before.
Xtra is one of a number of companies profiting off of the deportation of undocumented immigrants from the United States. Previous reporting by The Daily Beast revealed that the federal government currently employs the services of intelligence contractor MVM Inc. to provide “unaccompanied alien children (UAC) transportation services,” making it one in an array of contractors and charities bringing in millions of dollars off of the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrant families.
Major airlines including American, Frontier, and United have issued statements refusing to participate in Trump’s policy, which drew an angry rebuke from a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson who accused the companies of “buckling to a false media narrative.”
The main image on the ICE Air Operations website shows a 737-4Q8, registration number on the fuselage, to the left of the agent in the ICE raid jacket: N279AD. According to FAA records, it’s a Boeing 737-400 owned by the US Marshals Service since May 2016, and overseen by the Department Of Justice Prisoner And Alien Transportation Service.
But see that writing just above the windows just to the right of the rear door? ‘Operated by Xtra Airways.’ These flights are actually charters operated for ICE by outside companies even though DOJ owns the plane itself.
Just a few days ago, N279AD flew from Las Vegas to Goodyear, Arizona, according to tracking by FlightAware. Goodyear is located near three ICE detention centers in Florence, Eloy, and Phoenix.
A few days before that, it went from Oklahoma City to Salt Lake City; both cities have ICE facilities. The plane also went to San Antonio, which is located by the Karnes Detention Center, where they have the infamous “prison bus for babies” that made the rounds recently.
Another Xtra Airways 737, N688XA, registered to Xtra’s parent, AerSale, Inc., is on the ground in Goodyear, AZ now. It arrived there from Atlantic City in March, and doesn’t appear to have moved until this past Tuesday, when it took off from the Goodyear airport and landed back there again roughly an hour-and-a-half later.
According to aviation industry “intelligence provider” ch-aviation GmbH, Xtra also operates a 737-400, tail number N149XA, “on behalf of the United States Department of Homeland Security.”
In April, N149XA flew between Phoenix, San Antonio, and Brownsville, Texas and Guatemala City, and Ramon Villeda Morales International Airport in Honduras. Since the beginning of May, it seems to have been pressed back into regular passenger charter service, operating primarily between Florida and Cuba by Swift Air.
Xtra Airways has been working with DHS and ICE since at least 2013, when University of California, Merced sociology professor Tanya Golash-Boza watched a deportation flight operated by Xtra land in Guatemala City.
None of the contracts are available in public databases, but one source told the New York Times that Swift alone takes in a minimum of $15 million annually from ICE, “in part from deporting illegal immigrants.” (Last year, the Times reported that Vincent Viola, President Donald Trump’s onetime nominee for Secretary of the Army, was looking to purchase a minority stake in Swift.)
Xtra, whose parent company was fined $300,000 in 2012 by the U.S Department of Transportation for “unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition,” was in negotiations to sell the bulk of its fleet to an unnamed buyer back in March, when it reportedly laid off 164 staff, including pilots, cabin crew, and maintenance workers.
And while some may be put off by Xtra’s work with ICE, the carrier has in fact worked both sides of the political aisle: during the 2016 presidential race, the Clinton/Kaine campaign traveled the country on two Xtra Airways 737s emblazoned with “Stronger Together” and “Clinton/Kaine” logos on the fuselages.
Lyndelle Nieuwkerk, Xtra’s media relations contact, did not respond to requests for comment. However, Xtra’s operation of flights for ICE is confirmed in a recent corporate press release, which describes “flying sports teams, rock bands....[and] deportees for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
A spokesperson for Five Star Travel & Cruises of O’Fallon, Missouri, which owns Funjet, said the company’s last charter flight with Xtra took place at the end of December and as of January 2018 no longer work together. She did not elaborate on the reasons why. Officials at Apple Leisure Group, parent company of Apple Vacations and CheapCaribbean.com, were unable to be reached; CheapCaribbean.com’s media relations team did not respond to a request for comment.