August 31, 2011

“It was the perfect example of a partnership of industry and government getting something accomplished,” reported NBAA Security Council Chairman Greg Kulis, when he recently reflected on a local government-industry collaboration to improve Customs and Border Protection (CBP) clearance policies for business aviation at the Port Columbus International Airport (CMH) in Ohio.

Citing security issues in 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials ended their policy of planeside inspections at local FBOs for incoming international business aircraft flights, which then required the airplanes to nose-in to the Port Columbus commercial terminal for clearance.

As Mark Myers of Lane Aviation noted, “That created several problems. The first one was safety, since smaller business aircraft were hidden from the view of the tower, making for some close calls during push-backs.”

The second issue was the discouraging effect the change would have on business development in Ohio. Headquartered in the area are 15 Fortune 1000 companies, and CMH is also the home base for NetJets. Forcing passengers to disembark, stand in line for an hour, and then re-board to reach the FBO, was expected to have a chilling effect on the area’s economic competitiveness.

It was also a policy that was at odds with CBP procedure at most other similarly-sized airports. Myers found documented cases where flight departments had sent their aircraft to other fields rather than waste time at CMH.

“We knew we had to do something”, declared Myers.

A leader of the Ohio Regional Business Aviation Association (ORBAA), Myers saw it as an advocacy issue for the group and the ball was rolling. Next to become involved were a group of Ohio business leaders intent on making Columbus a top-ten city in the nation for business development. Both groups used the resources of their networks to reach out for support and, at the same time, flight department employees were encouraged to write letters.

A turning point came at a public meeting where a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch saw the story unfolding and wrote an article that attracted the attention of U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rob Portman (R-OH). Brown called on the CBP to review its inspection policy at CMH, to bring it into line with other airports, and Portman put together all the parties at one table for the first time to sort out the issues.

On August 23, U.S. Customs officials agreed to clear business aircraft at the FBOs once again, but there were still some hurdles to meet.

Beginning immediately, CBP agreed “in good faith” to allow U.S. and Canadian citizens who don’t require fingerprinting to be cleared at the FBOs, while international passengers will continue using the commercial terminal until a “step-down” satellite facility is built at Lane Aviation to meet CBP requirements.

These requirements include a holding area, computer lines for CBP fingerprinting and scanning systems, and a high level of security when the office is not manned. Lane Aviation is already in the planning stage and working with CBP on the specifications.