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Ex-DHS chief at center of questions over JetSmarter's security screening

The company says Tom Ridge designed its security procedures, but an investigation has shown clear lapses in those policies.
NY: Jet Smarter UBER for Private Jet Service
A 15-passenger Jet Smarter plane ready for boarding.Anthony Behar / SIPA via AP

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is now at the center of growing concerns over security and passenger screening at JetSmarter.

Following a CNBC investigation into the company last month, JetSmarter, the Florida-based private jet start-up, sent an email to members highlighting its security policies, saying its "proprietary safety and security infrastructure on the ground was designed with guidance from Ridge, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who currently serves on JetSmarter's board of directors."

The CNBC report included a video showing a 23-year-old disc jockey, Maurice Paola, exploding with rage on a JetSmarter private jet flight last September. He threatened to kill other passengers on board, including two young children on the flight, according to a federal complaint. The flight was diverted and Paola was arrested and charged with making terroristic threats.

Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and JetSmarter CEO Sergey Petrossov.JetSmarter

During his arrest, police found marijuana and $13,250 in cash in Paola's luggage, according to the complaint. Passengers and crew on the flight said there was no screening or security check before the flight. Three days before the flight, Paola had tweeted "From a jail cell to the private jet, they can't stop @ me." And on the same day of the flight, he tweeted "Possessed man, get out my way."

Ridge said in a statement to CNBC that "JetSmarter's security measures were designed to not only comply with federal requirements but to exceed them."

In its email to members, JetSmarter said its security includes TSA No Fly List screening, a background check, on-the-ground security and K-9 bag screening

In a further statement to CNBC, JetSmarter said it "employs stricter and more deliberately enforced security procedures than other private aviation industry leaders, including fractional jet providers, jet cards, and other shared flight services."

JetSmarter made security one of its signature marketing messages after the company launched in 2012. It named Ridge to the board in 2016, saying in a news release that he would advise "our team as we work to Ridge and JetSmarter declined to comment on any compensation Ridge may have received, or what investment stake or other benefits he may have received from the company.

The same year that Ridge joined, JetSmarter claimed to have a valuation of $1.5 billion after a funding round.

Yet JetSmarter members and crew on JetSmarter flights say the company didn't always follow its stated security policies. On some flights there was no bag screening or dog checks, they say. On most flights, except those out of Logan Airport in Boston and perhaps a few others, passengers themselves did not have to go through any metal detector or physical screening, as is the case for a vast majority private jet flights.

Despite JetSmarter's claim that it checks for "unauthorized explosives, incendiaries, weapons, narcotics, and other items prohibited onboard," passengers say they witnessed drugs and cash on board. One passenger told CNBC that he saw a gun brought on board.

Denver resident Daniel Valenti said he was a JetSmarter member who was boarding flight in Austin, Texas, two-and-a-half years ago when he discovered a fellow passenger was carrying a handgun.

JetSmarter member Daniel Valenti.CNBC

"We were walking to the plane on the runway," he said. "And while we were walking a gentleman next to me turned to the pilot and said 'I'm carrying.' I kind of deduced, you know, that he has a gun."

Valenti said the passenger voluntarily turned the gun over to the pilot, who kept it in the cockpit during the flight. But Valenti said the passenger could have easily kept the gun on the flight.

"At that point, I started to have some serious questions about the safety on these flights," he said. "No one was checking for guns. No one asked anyone if they had a gun."

JetSmarter refused to comment on the incident.

The security issues at JetSmarter are likely to become more common throughout the industry, as more and more jet companies offer passengers the chance to book individual seats on private jet flights. The current security procedures for private jet flights and terminals were created for mainly for jets that were flying a single family or executives from the same company. Now, passengers are able to book an individual seat on a plane – much like a commercial flight, but without the same level of security. What's more, cockpit doors on many private jets are not armed, and many cockpits are open throughout the flights

The Transportation Security Administration requires passengers to be positively identified before boarding a private jet and to be screened for the TSA No-Fly List. The same items banned on commercial flights — everything from weapons to narcotics to large liquids — are also prohibited on private jets. But there is often no physical screening of bags or passengers.

K-9 Unit police dog.CNBC

"It's a huge loophole," said one pilot who flew JetSmarter flights. "On many of their flights there is basically zero security."

Sally Horchow, another JetSmarter member, said she talked to other passengers who appeared to choose to fly JetSmarter specifically because of the more relaxed security compared with commercial flights.

"I met one person on an earlier flight who, while I didn't actually see the bag full of cash, he kind of motioned to it," Horchow said. "He explained to me that one of the reasons he had signed up for JetSmarter was that he had been detained at JFK after getting off a commercial flight with a bag of pot-smelling cash, and that was a real hassle for him. So he was really happy to have this option."

One flight attendant said she witnessed passengers doing cocaine on a flight. Another said she was once offered drugs as a gratuity.

Valenti said he met passengers who told him they were in the marijuana business.

"When I would talk to people on the flights occasionally, they would tell me that's what they do, they move weed between states where it's legal to have it and illegal to have it. And they were able to use JetSmarter as a big part of their business."

Bianca Fortis, CNBC contributed.