The ringleader of a gang that used an airline’s staff discount travel programme to smuggle cigarettes through UK airports has been handed a confiscation order for £348,705.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) found that flight attendant Dennis Connolly, 44, of Southport, had organised over 130 smuggling trips for himself and five others, using discounted staff tickets to travel. The gang hid cigarettes and tobacco, worth £180,000 in evaded duty and taxes, in their luggage.

Connolly and his accomplice, Terence Steele, 58, of Liverpool, were each issued with confiscation orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act at Manchester Crown Court.

Connolly and Steele made large purchases of duty-free tobacco in Spain and Portugal for the gang to smuggle back to the UK.

Connolly received a confiscation order for £348,705 and Steele received one for £111,671. After assessment of their available assets, Connolly was ordered to repay £21,543 within three months or 15 months will be added to his jail sentence, and Steele was ordered to repay £109,297 within three months or serve two years in jail.

Zoe Ellerbeck, assistant director, criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “Airline employees hold a position of trust and abusing this privilege is a serious matter. Connolly organised subsidised travel purely for smuggling purposes. There are no excuses for smuggling, whatever your status, and HMRC are determined to recover stolen taxes.

“Tobacco fraud costs honest taxpayers more than £2.1 billion a year, undercutting honest businesses, and drawing people into wider criminality. Anyone with information about illicit tobacco sales or smuggling should contact the Customs’ Hotline on 0800 595000.”