Who Watches the Wealthy
Tracing the realtime movements of most ordinary commercial and private aircraft can be straightforward through ‘tracking’ websites :
These sites collect signals from a public high-frequency radio band, primarily for use by air-traffic control systems and other aircraft, known as the ADS-B system. ADS-B signals can be monitored with any appropriately tuned antenna – you can make one at home (see below)!
These methods allow anyone to follow common flights with only some basic identifying information - unless the owner of the plane is powerful, wealthy, or motivated enough to have their aircraft data redacted.
If you’re a journalist, and the subject of your story has done exactly that - then what?
OCCRP has a solution.
Our data team has coordinated with ADSB-Exchange and C4ADS, which jointly collects and manages the world’s largest source of unfiltered flight data, to examine the travels of a host of oligarchs and political leaders.
Here is how it works.
The Data Trail in Five Minutes
Receivers in this co-operative network record the aircraft position, speed, altitude, and timestamp, all signed with an ‘address’ known as an ICAO address or Mode-S code, which uniquely identifies the aircraft.
The receivers have a maximum range of around four hundred kilometers and are located mostly on densely populated landmasses. This also means that planes flying over places like the Atlantic or the Sahara, for example, will sometimes leave the network’s range entirely.
Other obstacles to assembling a clear picture occur when an aircraft descends under the effective altitude for signal transmission — predominantly to land — or when overlapping signals are detected by multiple receivers.
Any attempt to piece together a picture of the travels by hand will be complex and painstaking, since one aircraft can easily generate over fifty thousand position readings over a two year period.
To assemble readings that constitute distinct flights, OCCRP’s data team has designed a small collection of data analysis algorithms which, among other things, group observations of any aircraft across multiple antennae by timestamp and infer takeoff & landing through a combination of first & last position relative to major airports and aircraft altitude at the time.
For example, if a collection shows an aircraft’s final position reading for (at least) many hours near London Heathrow at a low altitude, our algorithm assumes it’s landed there.
If we find the last reading at a high altitude above the North Atlantic off the Irish coast, with readings resuming after a couple of hours above Iceland, we stitch the two sets of positions together.
Flight data from this network should not be considered complete. In many parts of the world, including many potential regions of interest, the available receivers may be few and far apart, and the sparse data can force a ‘best guess’ methodology for projecting what airport the aircraft is departing from or arriving to.
In some cases, an aircraft’s signal is seen to disappear over an ocean and isn’t seen for weeks due either to staying grounded, out of the network’s coverage area or potentially deactivating its’ transponder.
After observations are algorithmically grouped into distinct flights, we can zoom in on interesting travels by ‘geofencing’ destinations of interest, selecting all flights by aircraft of interest whose flight endpoints fall within range of select airports.
In one example, Cyprus, long described as a gateway into Europe for Russian money, has seen many interesting visitors (each oligarch has his own color!... see below for details).
While the wealthy and powerful travel European capitals and the exclusive resorts of the ultra-rich quite frequently, insight into their travels goes well beyond Monaco and Sochi, and visits to more tropical climates may prove of greater interest.
OCCRPs’ initial analysis has centered on sunny money laundering hubs including the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, or Panama City, as well as the considerably less sunny Isle of Man. As a brief introduction to how these destinations might be of interest, look no further than OCCRP's own reporting on two huge global operations, The Panama Papers and The Russian Laundromat.
Come for Company Formation, Stay for the Beaches
Let’s look deeper at just one example of how our tracking works.
Roman Abramovich’s expensive tastes is famous and it would be uncouth for such a man to travel on a commercial airline. As might be expected, Mr. Abramovich maintains a sleekly decorated Boeing 767, among other jets, to carry him in comfort and style.
Like most aircraft, Mr. Abramovich’s Boeing regularly, though not always, transmits its location along with various other data on the so-called ADS-B system which the usual tracking websites collect.
Curious about his travels, we can input the tail number of the 767, visible from photographs as ‘P4-MES’, into one of those sites but we would find no records of the aircraft's travels, as presumably they have been redacted.
If we checked in at the right time, we can monitor his plane in realtime on the ADSBExchange site. Many times a month, Abramovich’s Boeing flies between Moscow and London - unsurprising given his well-known business interests in both capitals. He frequents St. Petersburg and New York as well and makes regular appearances in Monaco, Sochi, and the Black Forest in Germany. Recently, in pursuit of his newly acquired Israeli citizenship, he’s flown multiple times to and from Tel Aviv.
Among these more common travels, we know Mr. Abramovich’s jet visited the area of the British Virgin Islands several times in early 2017, including this trip (pictured right) from New Jersey on February 17 2017. He stayed there until February 27. Similar trips occured on January 3, and March 24, and December 22.
OCCRP alleges no illegal activity by Mr. Abramovich or any of the other billionaires detailed below, only that they are frequent fliers to certain locations.
Indeed, are billionaires not allowed to soak in long sea-breeze days on the beach along with the rest of us who can afford to step foot in these exclusive communities? One imagines these evenings, enjoying a bottle of 1780 Barbados Private Estate, watching a small army of dolphins trained for exclusive entertainment from the comfort of a glass-walled swimming pool levitating peacefully above a peach-hued bay.
It might just be of interest to see if any companies were registered during these afternoons.
Boyars in Paradise (and the Irish Sea)
OCCRP has initially examined 35 aircraft of interest flying more than 7.5 million kilometers over some 5800 flights. This analysis has uncovered trips to known money laundering resorts from a number of notable figures including:
- Alexander Abramov : Russian steel magnate, chairman of Evraz Group.
- Alexander Mashkevitch : Kazakh-Israeli businessman and major shareholder in Eurasian National Resources Corporation.
- Alexei Mordashov : Russian owner of Severstal.
- Alisher Usmanov : Uzbek-Russian industrial magnate and investor.
- Andrey Guryev : Dominant in the Russian fertilizer industry; beneficial owner of PhosAgro.
- Dmytro Firtash : Ukranian businessman and ally of the Yuschenko & Yanukovich administrations. US currently seeking extradition.
- Farkhad Akhmedov : Azeri-Russian businessman and politician.
- Igor Makarov : Turkmen-Russian businessman, owner of ARETI International Group.
- Len Blavatnik : Soviet-born British-American diversified businessman. Active in American politics and longtime friend of Viktor Vekselberg.
- Leonid Mikhelson : Owner of Russian gas company Novatek and subject to US sanctions.
- Oleg Tinkov : Russian diversified businessman and founder of Tinkoff Bank.
- Roman Abramovich : Russian diversified businessman, philanthropist, and owner of Chelsea FC.
|Alexander Abramov||12/5/2016||Van Nuys, USA||Anegada, British VG|
|Alexander Abramov||2/6/2017||Houston, USA||Anegada, British VG|
|Alexander Abramov||2/23/2017||Miami, USA||Anegada, British VG|
|Alexander Mashkevitch||12/16/2017||Isle of Man||London, UK|
|Alexander Mashkevitch||2/25/2018||London, UK||Panama City, Panama|
|Alexander Mashkevitch||4/11/2018||Panama City, Panama||Punta Cana, Dominican Republic|
|Alexei Mordashov||5/10/2017||Isle of Man||London, UK|
|Alisher Usmanov||2/20/2018||Larnaca, Cyprus||Mulhouse, France|
|Andrey Guryev||8/13/2016||Unknown in Greece||Paphos, Cyprus|
|Dmytro Firtash||3/25/2017||Unknown in South Pacific||Auckland, NZ|
|Farkhad Akhmedov||1/17/2017||Spanish Town, British VG||Miami, USA|
|Igor Makarov||7/14/2016||Paphos, Cyprus||Unknown in France|
|Igor Makarov||10/12/2016||Unknown, North Atlantic||Nicosia, Cyprus|
|Igor Makarov||10/15/2016||Cairo, Egypt||Larnaca, Cyprus|
|Len Blavatnik||12/29/2016||San Juan, Puerto Rico||St. Thomas, Virgin Islands|
|Len Blavatnik||4/9/2017||Alice Town, Bahamas||Anegada, British VG|
|Leonid Mikhelson||9/25/2016||Akrotiri, Cyprus||Strasbourg Neudorf, France|
|Oleg Tinkov||4/27/2018||Florence, Italy||Larnaca, Cyprus|
|Roman Abramovich||1/3/2017||New Jersey, USA||Anegada, British VG|
|Roman Abramovich||3/24/2017||Denver, USA||Anegada, British VG|
Investigative curiosities from the jet-setting frontier don’t stop at money laundering. Witness Mr. Abramovich on 3-9-18, flying (it appears) from Crimea / Rostov-on-Don area, amusingly looping the hundreds of kilometers all the way round Ukrainian airspace, to London.
Or his visit to the Iranian island oil and gas outpost of Sirri on January 28 2018...or perhaps the government of Equatorial Guinea ferrying honest public servants to Singapore, Mykonos, Mytilini, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro might interest you.
These findings are only the beginning. We encourage interested journalists to contact firstname.lastname@example.org with research requests and feedback on our analysis. We want to hear from you! We also encourage you to reach out to ADSB-Exchange (https://www.adsbexchange.com/contact/) or C4ADS (email@example.com) for more information about the flight data network and how you can help.
Food for thought:
- With the help of OCCRP Research, Data Team has compiled a long list of 'interesting' aircraft from the oligarchs above to the Saudi Royals. Let us know who you're looking for.
- Should we publish a weekly digest of the movements of select aircraft or travel into certain locations?
- Can we identify events whose airborne attendees we could study?
- If you had access to a web resource which allowed you to browse the travels of select aircraft or ownership organizations (think ‘Azerbaijan Airlines’ or other pseudo-governmental carriers), how would you use it?
- A live version of the ADSB Exchange tracking network is always viewable (sceen below)
- Additionally, if you would like to check out historical flight data for an aircraft of interest, be sure to check out ADSB-Exchange’s historical flight viewer.
- ADSB 'Can' Receiver courtesy www.adsbexchange.com
- ADSB System Illustration courtesy The National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
- All aircraft-tracking maps generated with 'Basemap' https://github.com/matplotlib/basemap