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Streamlining Customs Operations

Industry/government partnerships are expected to continue to help improve CBP programs for business aviation.

When the global pandemic wanes, experts expect international business aircraft operations to increase. What initiatives at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) might facilitate the flow of business aircraft into and out of the U.S. while maintaining a high level of security? Several industry experts point to numerous existing or planned program enhancements:

  • Introduction of a Single-Syntax Advanced Passenger Information System.
  • Possible expansion of the agency’s Reimbursable Services Program and Preclearance Program.
  • Continuation of improvements to the Border Overflight Exemption Program and the Visa Waiver Program.

Single-Syntax APIS Rollout

Perhaps the most significant development will be the introduction of a Single-Syntax Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS), a refinement of the manifest information reporting system.

Currently, commercial operations into and out of the U.S. utilize an APIS reporting format called “EDIFACT PAXLST,” which was designed with scheduled airlines in mind. This format includes required information such as “transportation line” and “flight number,” which clearly don’t align with non-scheduled commercial operations. Non-scheduled commercial operators also have to apply to CBP for a unique, three-letter carrier identifier to use under the current APIS program.

When non-commercial aircraft operators began to submit information to CBP via APIS, the agency developed a web service interface in XML format, which included information fields for aircraft registration number, type, color and other details more relevant to private aircraft. This system also enabled the agency to streamline or eliminate other requirements, such as filing the Private Aircraft Enforcement System Arrival Report, Form 178.

Laura Everington – senior manager of government and industry affairs at Universal Weather & Aviation, Inc., a member of NBAA’s Security Council and a long-time participant in government/industry working groups on security policies and procedures – says Single-Syntax APIS will create several efficiencies for business aircraft operators.

“We are at a time when it just makes sense to separate non-scheduled flights from commercial airline flights in the CBP systems so that all general aviation will be in the same bucket,” Everington said. Single-Syntax, when implemented, would mean that all GA operators would transmit data to CBP via the web-based XML format. “The hope is to further streamline or automate more of the seemingly redundant processes and paperwork involved when arranging international arrivals and departures through APIS.”

“Single-Syntax APIS will streamline the APIS process for non-airline, non-cargo traffic with an easier-to-use XML format,” explained Jason Maddux, an attorney at Garofalo Goerlich Hainbach who specializes in aviation regulatory issues. He added that this new system is more consistent with the agency’s other systems and could eventually have positive implications for the Master Crew List, which is currently submitted through the Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport (EDIFACT). Single-Syntax APIS is currently being tested and could be rolled out to the entire industry later this year.

Border Overflight Exemption Enhancements

CBP began a process to improve the Border Overflight Exemption Program in 2017.

New policies centralize the approval process, transferring the responsibility from individual ports to CBP’s General Aviation Program Manager’s division. New approval letters essentially provide a blanket exemption for any aircraft, crew and passengers aboard an operator’s aircraft.

Previously, approval letters specified the aircraft, crew, airports of intended arrival in the U.S. and airports of foreign origin, so operators were required to submit a new border overflight exemption request for most international trips.

“We’ve seen great changes to the border overflight exemption approval process in the past few years,” said a Northeast-based operator and International Operators Committee member. “Now, you send the application to a central email address to people who are very familiar with ins-and-outs of general aviation.”

“Single-Syntax APIS will streamline the APIS process for non-airline, non-cargo traffic with an easier-to-use XML format.”

Jason Maddux Attorney, Garofalo Goerlich Hainbach

Reimbursable Services Program Offers Flexibility

Launched in 2013, the Reimbursable Services Program (RSP) allows operators to request CBP clearance services outside of normal CBP operating hours, with the operator reimbursing the agency for these services.

“If you are based at or frequently operate to an airport that has restricted [customs clearance] hours, this program is something you should learn more about,” said Everington, who emphasized that airport access, particularly in last-leg planning, is key to operational flexibility.

Operators using the RSP report significant cost-savings and operational efficiencies. Also, RSP allows airports, FBOs and operators to become partners in the program.

Visa Waiver Program Facilitates Non-citizen Travel

The Visa Waiver Program essentially allows certain operators to bring citizens of 39 countries into the U.S. without a visa, after the operator is approved as a “Signatory Carrier.” The program is open to all scheduled and non-scheduled commercial operators, as well as to U.S.-based private, non-revenue operators.

Experts call the program a “game changer” in terms of the flexibility to transport non-U.S. citizens to the U.S., even on short notice. The application process is relatively simple and approvals are valid for seven years.

Although some operators might only use the program rarely, approval can help an operator avoid a costly and often embarrassing scenario of transporting a non-U.S. citizen to the U.S. without a required visa. However, non-U.S. passengers still must comply with the other requirements of the program, including holding a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

Preclearance Services May Expand

Preclearance services for GA are currently available at Ireland’s Shannon Airport and Queen Beatrix International in Aruba. However, CBP officials and industry representatives are discussing possibly expanding U.S. preclearance of GA flights to other airports that already have a CBP preclearance capability for U.S. scheduled airlines.

Although it seems it would be simple to allow GA passengers to clear at any foreign airport that has a U.S. CBP presence, the devil is in the details. Are GA passengers allowed in the airline terminal? Do CBP officers have authorization to conduct services at an FBO? Do the FBOs have appropriate facilities? The answers are different for each location.

Shannon is perhaps the best example of the preclearance program’s success. Preclearance service hours there have been extended recently from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time to 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. local, using the reimbursable payment model for the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“Later evening hours are really important. They allow passengers to conduct a full day of business in Europe, then go through preclearance on the way home,” explained Joe Buckley, founder and executive director of the Irish Business and General Aviation Association, a new organization that is promoting business aviation in Ireland.

Flights using preclearance services at Shannon were down in 2020 due to the pandemic, and the program was suspended for a while. But Buckley notes that the program grew substantially in 2019, and he expects the number of aircraft handled to increase later this year, once COVID-19 is under better control.

Buckley credits the preclearance program’s success at Shannon to NBAA and its Security Council, as well as to Clint Lamm, director of field operations preclearance; Port Director Patrick Cohan; and CBP leadership in Washington, DC.

The success of these CBP programs highlights the importance of industry/government partnerships. NBAA’s Security Council and International Operators Committee will continue to work closely with government representatives to provide increasing benefits to business aviation while maintaining a high level of security.

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