Customs proposal impossible to comply with, pilots say

November 2, 2007

Customs proposal impossible to comply with, pilots say

By AOPA ePublishing staff

Pilots: Comment on customs proposal before it's too late

By AOPA ePublishing staff


Pilots only have until Nov. 19 to point out flaws in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection proposal to require general aviation pilots submit arrival and departure notices and passenger manifests via an electronic means and then receive approval to enter or leave the United States.

On Oct. 31, Customs officially denied AOPA's request for a comment period extension, stating that a delay in the rulemaking process would allow "vulnerabilities, which threaten U.S. border security, to continue."

"It is imperative that all AOPA members who have flown internationally or even thought about flying outside the United States comment on this proposal," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs. "This rule, as written, is practically impossible for GA pilots to comply with, considering the remote areas in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean that pilots frequent."

The proposal would require GA pilots to submit arrival and departure notices and a passenger manifest to customs via its electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) or other electronic means approved by CBP a minimum of 60 minutes before beginning a flight to or from the United States. Pilots would then need to wait for approval from customs to leave or enter the country. Receiving approval to leave the United States would be a completely new requirement.

Currently, pilots provide their customs notification a minimum of 60 minutes prior to crossing the southern border and enough time on the northern border to allow CBP agents to meet the aircraft. Changing this requirement could prove to be extremely burdensome to pilots who use air traffic control to notify customs while in flight.

Many of the locations frequented by GA pilots in foreign countries have limited infrastructure and lack reliable services. Phone service is spotty, much less Internet access, which would be required under this proposed rule.

AOPA understands the need to protect the country's borders, but the association wants a workable solution for pilots. If the current rule goes through, many pilots who have flown internationally have said they will stop.

Learn more about the issue and submit your comments now through AOPA's U.S. Customs and Border Protection NPRM Member Action Center.

Filing flight information and a passenger manifest via the Internet or by other electronic means before leaving or entering the United States is, in many cases, just not possible for general aviation operations. That's what more than 1,000 pilots have told U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about its latest proposal on general aviation international flight operations.

"AOPA members are responding with real-life examples of why the customs proposal won't work," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs. "They're pointing out that while they support border protection and homeland security, the current proposal is simply impossible to comply with and needs to be rethought."

Many pilots have pointed out that Internet access isn't available at the airports they fly in and out of in Mexico.

"I find it obvious the drafters of this proposal are either unaware or simply dismissive of the real-world conditions existing at locations frequented by many private pilots, in particular within Mexico," the pilot said. "Simply finding an operational telephone, much less one that can be utilized for international calls, is frequently impossible, and the idea that Internet access will be available is a pipe dream."

"It can be difficult enough to reach customs from out of the United States. Office hours are limited. Phone service is irregular. I have gotten busy signals for half an hour, had phones go unanswered, and reached answering machines during staffed hours," another pilot lamented. He later pointed out, "Now you want us to find Internet access, which may not exist at a small foreign airstrip, and wait after submitting information for an electronic reply that may or may not ever reach me?"

One GA pilot of 39 years who flies volunteer missions with the Flying Samaritans said such a rule would likely end that humanitarian service. The pilot flies from a chapter in San Luis Obispo, Calif., to Mexico about four times a year to help deliver free medical care to a small hospital in San Quintin, Baja. Thanks to the organization, special medical care is given three days each month at a hospital that lacks funding for enough staff.

"If this new proposal becomes law, it will put an end to this volunteer humanitarian service because it depends entirely on volunteer pilots," the pilot wrote. "And with only very limited phone service between San Quintin and San Diego FSS and no WiFi for Internet access and the need to sometimes change our route or time schedule to weather or mechanical problems—it would appear to make it impossible to abide by the new requirements."

Safety concerns were also top among pilots.

"I believe it will compromise safety if pilots feel the added pressure to fulfill commitments and possibly fly under unsafe conditions," another wrote. "Your average general aviation pilot wants to follow the rules and may make poor decisions in an effort to avoid enforcement actions, penalties, and unwarranted delays."

Pilots said they also need the ability to change their plans in flight because of deteriorating weather conditions.

November 1, 2007