March 3, 2011

When community airports open an on-site customs facility, one question is often initially overlooked: What to do with the trash operators bring aboard their aircraft from outside U.S. borders?

The trash can’t just be tossed into a dumpster with other garbage; instead, the treatment of it falls under two jurisdictions: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The intent, of course, is to prevent the spread of agricultural or animal disease into the U.S. While the concern is appropriately placed, it can create an additional set of considerations for airport officials.

Such was the case for Darci Neuzil, deputy director at Addison Airport (ADS) on the outskirts of Dallas. Her budget hadn’t taken into account the cost of having even a small bag of international trash incinerated by a company approved by USDA. It is, she says, “a surprisingly large expense.”

At McClelland-Palomar Airport (CRQ) just north of San Diego, airport manager Willie Vasquez admits that they hadn’t accounted for the cost of out-of-country trash when they first opened a customs facility two years ago and. Though there is a pass-along cost charged to each aircraft for the service, it still doesn’t balance the budget.

Doing It Yourself

Ryan Frost, airport manager at the Naples Municipal Airport (APF) on the west coast of Florida, hired a USDA-approved outside trash service when that airport’s new customs building opened late in 2010, but that approach proved to be cost-prohibitive. “The nearest USDA-approved trash company is in Ft. Myers, about 40 miles away,” he reports. “Since the trash has to be segregated, I was paying a truck to drive down, pick up a few pounds of international trash, drive back and then incinerate it. It was as much as $500 for five pounds!”

To that end, Frost acquired two Smart Ash incinerators, which convert a 55-gallon drum into powerful mini-furnaces that are USDA-approved and which handle his relatively small quantities. He is, however, planning on installing a permanent incinerator to meet future needs.

An International Sideline

Turning a lemon into lemonade is Jet Air, an FBO at Austin Straubel International Airport (GRB) in Green Bay, which has 24/7 customs service. The airport installed a trash-sterilization building fitted with what is essentially a large hospital autoclave to handle all international trash.

Alan Timmerman, COO of Jet Air, sends a lineman along with the customs officers to each arriving international business aircraft, and the flight crew puts the trash directly into a USDA-approved bag. “The regulations for trash disposal are tough”, says Timmerman, because dual approval by both USDA and CBP is required. Even the trash bag has to be a special color.”

“We’re on the Great Circle route from Europe,” he adds, “so many aircraft clear into the U.S. and then head to their own airports. Having 24/7 customs, and fast service as well, is good for our business.”

Jet Air differs from other customs providers in that the company has created an international trash service that has USDA approval to pick up anywhere in the state of Michigan. Their trucks and containers are approved and, he adds, “Even the routes our trucks drive have to be pre-approved by the USDA to keep them away from any agricultural areas.”

The Port of Green Bay is an international entry for large ships, and Jet Air may pick up 40-50 bags from a single ship. It also serves the military, which has flights from Iraq arriving at Volk Field (VOK), each with more trash for Jet Air.

It is, Timmerman has discovered, a way to turn a necessary evil into an international sideline that is also a profit center.