It's Time to Reform U.S. Customs

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EDITORIAL. When a lightning strike took out the approach control radar at Miami International last week, ATC and airport employees scrambled to get the airport functioning again. At the same time, the U.S. Customs "Service" sat on its proverbial butt and kept arriving international passengers prisoners in sweltering airline cabins for as long as three and a half hours. AVweb publisher Carl Marbach thinks it's high time that Congress gave the U.S. Customs Service the same sort of marching orders it recently gave the IRS and is prepared to give airlines through the proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

ATISOn Wednesday of this week, Miami International's ASR-9 approach control radar took a direct lightning strike and was out of service for more than three hours. Most of the agencies and people involved in moving airplanes rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Everyone, that is, except the U.S. Customs Service.

The approach controllers, crippled without their own radar, went two blocks down the road to Miami Center, where en route controllers at the ARTCC hurriedly doubled up on their own positions to free up some scopes for approach use. Through this kind of mutual cooperation and support, ATC was able to resume landing airplanes at MIA. AVweb applauds the efforts of these hard-working controllers, who showed initiative, ingenuity and flexibility in the face of a natural occurrence over which no one had any control.

Fort Lauderdale, 20 miles to the north, was also affected because the approach controllers there use the same ASR-9 radar sensor that Miami does. Palm Beach International, 40 miles further north, has its own independent approach radar and was unaffected by the outage. Many airplanes, particularly those with minimum fuel reserves, were diverted to Palm Beach where their passengers could be placed on buses for the 90-minute trip to Miami.

However, many of the aircraft with minimum fuel were international flights whose passengers required clearance into the country by U.S. Customs. These poor folks were left to sit in their airplanes for up to three and a half hours until they could fly back to Miami for customs! So, while controllers scrambled, Palm Beach airport staff worked overtime, and pilots searched for the unfamiliar PBI approach plate, U.S. Customs collectively sat in their red leather chairs and waited for the sheep to come to them.

What About Customs At PBI?

Author's AerostarHere it gets more interesting. Palm Beach International does have customs. I know, because I have cleared through PBI many times when flying my Aerostar N6069N. The customs facilities at PBI are a smaller version of those found at larger international airports like MIA. But, it has everything needed to clear people and baggage into the U.S.

If I'd been consulted, here's what I'd have suggested to the U.S. Customs Service: Park these international planes on the customs side of the field at PBI. Then make the command decision that all baggage from these flights is simply cleared into the country, sight unseen. The chance that any meaningful contraband would get into the country this way is small — after all, none of the arriving passengers knew ahead of time that they were going to wind up in Palm Beach. Next, take all the arriving U.S. citizens from these aircraft and walk them through a very fast immigration/passport check. Only stamp the passports of those who request it, letting the others walk right through to the same buses taking domestic passengers to Miami. The relatively small percentage of alien passengers on these flights could then be handled by the customs agents normally on duty at Palm Beach (I've never seen less than three), perhaps supplemented by some extra agents gleaned from wherever they could be found. Checking these few aliens in could also be expedited.

But nobody consulted me. The U.S. Customs Service declared that the facilities at Palm Beach International were inadequate, and forced more misery on people already severely inconvenienced.

Is there a precedent for the type of expedited customs clearance I suggested be used here? How about boaters, who simply call an 800 number and are given a clearance code over the phone. No agents, no passport check, no luggage look-see ... nothing. Customs reserves the right to tell the boat operator to wait for an agent dispatched to the boat landing, but in fact that almost never happens. On many of my international arrivals at Palm Beach in my Aerostar, the passengers don't even have passports. Almost any form of identification will usually suffice, and often customs doesn't even bother to look at the airplane. I don't see anything wrong with this. After all, isn't it the threat that they could look what really deters us from bringing in all those Cuban cigars?

Time For Congress To Act?

U.S Customs Service sealThis year, Congress told the Internal Revenue Service, in no uncertain terms, to become friendlier. The IRS had gone completely out of control in its overzealous efforts to collect taxes. Similarly, legislation is pending before Congress which would send a "wake-up call" to airlines which hold hostage their passengers and fail to keep them informed, among other transgressions. I suggest it's time for the U.S. Customs Service to receive the same sort of congressional scrutiny ... and the same sort of marching orders. (Isn't it ironic that the government agencies that oppress us the most always seem to be called "Service" and be part of the U.S. Treasury Department?)

Customs WarningAn aircraft-owner friend of mine recently received notice from customs that his airplane may be unairworthy as a result of a customs search, and suggesting that he have a mechanic look over the aircraft before further flight. When he asked what the customs agents had done to his plane, they wouldn't tell him.

Mostly, I don't find fault with the individual rank-and-file agents. The problem seems to come from the supervisors — the folks in the U.S. Customs Service who set policy and procedure. At Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE), customs told me that they close at 5:00 p.m. "Don't come in here at 10 'til five and expect to get cleared," the agent told me on the phone. "We shut the computers down at 10 'til and start closing up. If you're coming around five, better go to Fort Lauderdale International." Customs at FXE also wants all luggage carried into their facility, while customs at PBI only asks for this on a random basis. At Buffalo, N.Y., we were instructed that we couldn't set foot on the ground until an agent came to the plane. It's different everywhere, yet everywhere the agents tell us that they are just following the rules.

I'm all for stopping illegal things from entering this country. All too often, however, U.S. Customs is putting its efforts in the wrong directions. And, as the Miami radar outage episode illustrates, the organization seems severely lacking in initiative and flexibility.

U.S. Customs needs to start acting more like the agent who met my commercial flight in Dallas, Texas, one day. "Welcome home," he said.