February 25, 2011

One of the attractions of business aviation is increased convenience and efficiency of travel. But, as global commerce grows, business fliers often must make stops they wouldn’t otherwise make at international airports for customs clearance before continuing on to their home fields, which may be only a few miles away.

Stopping short of destination for customs adds another cycle to the aircraft, increases fuel costs, and entails the time-consuming disembarking and reloading of passengers and baggage. It may even require an entirely new flight crew if the pilots are at their Federal Aviation Administration flight time limits, although the next leg may only last a few minutes.

The resulting situation could be viewed two ways. On the one hand, the demand for customs services at community airports has put pressure on airport officials to add those services. On the other hand, having clearances available also brings added benefits by making the airport (and surrounding community) more attractive to businesses.

Why Customs Clearance Is Good For Business

A good example: Lunken Airport (LUK) on the east side of Cincinnati. Currently, customs clearance is only available at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) across the state border in Kentucky, which means a two-minute flight to Lunken after clearance.

Lunken has a number of business aircraft based at the airport, and Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory has requested federal funding of $4.2 million to build a customs facility there. In addition to serving existing business users at Lunken, the addition of customs would be beneficial to the community.

“Anything we can do to increase the business use of our airport is good,” says Doug Moormann, VP of Economic Development for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “We face intense competition in marketing our area for businesses, either new ones or for the expansion of existing companies. Having customs clearance at Lunken is another tool in our toolbox that helps differentiate us from our competition.”

What Does Adding Customs Clearance Involve?

Doug Carr, NBAA’s VP of Safety, Security, and Regulation, says airport officials should understand the requirements for installing customs facilities, to get a good understanding of the costs and other resources that might be involved. “The process for adding customs service is well-defined,” Carr says, “But airports need to understand that Customs and Border Protection [CBP] set a high facility standard that is not insignificant.”

For example, facility requirements include specifics such as bulletproof buildings, a holding cell, and even a dedicated T-1 phone line, which can cost up to $10,000 a year.

There are several models for customs service, including a staffed 24-hour office, a “business hours” version with CPB agents on call for night arrivals, and on-demand clearances with no permanent staffing. Aside from the facility, the airport is also responsible for the cost of the CBP staffing, which most airports pass along to operators.

Going By The Book

The starting point for adding customs services, says Carr, should be a discussion between the airport director and the local CBP office. After agreeing on the need and a general plan, the airport will receive a book of specifications that must be met, since approval by CBP hinges on a final inspection. The Naples Municipal Airport (APF) opened a customs office three months ago, and director of operations, Ryan Frost, admits that it was worrisome. “I was uncomfortable building a $2 million facility that they could refuse,” he reports. “My customs contacts, who were fantastic to work with, reassured me that a facility had never been declined, but they were adamant that it all hinged on final inspection – those are the rules.”

The McClelland-Palomar Airport (CRQ), about 30 miles north of San Diego, added customs about two years ago because it is surrounded by industries and has more than 100 business aircraft tenants. “We started our customs addition just before the economic slump,” says airport manager, Willie Vasquez and our budget was based on that usage. We’re not even close in budget numbers, but it’s still been very good for our community – we’ve attracted businesses, including one that came to the area specifically because of our customs clearance capability.”

Expect The Unexpected

Vasquez and several other airport managers also found that there were some unexpected costs. One was the sometimes variable cost of paying for CBP agents. While an airport’s original plan and budget might have been based on a single agent staffing the facility, additional agents would sometimes be on hand and their unexpected cost would be borne by the airport.

A second big surprise was international trash. Trash from incoming out-of-country flights can’t just be tossed in a dumpster, but must be disposed of according to very rigorous Dept. of Agriculture regulations. At one airport, just dealing with a pound or two of trash from an overseas aircraft runs more than $10,000 a year to have a USDA-approved company incinerate it.

Darci Neuzil, deputy director at Addison Airport (ADS) located in the northern hub for business in Dallas, but notes that the decision to obtain customs services has been worthwhile. “Having customs available has brought us new business, and it’s also brought business to our community.”

The NBAA’s Carr concludes: “Having full customs capabilities makes an airport extremely valuable to businesses. Making arrival into the United States as simple as possible is a tremendous asset to business aviation.”