Aircraft ‘sequestered’ in long waits to clear customs

Were March delays random glitches, or new reality?

April 3, 2013

AOPA has asked officials to explain whether a spate of recent “very negative” experiences for pilots clearing U.S. Customs at southern airports of entry were isolated events or—more ominously—symptoms of post-sequester operational chaos.

Responding to member accounts of long waits and occasional testy encounters, AOPA contacted field operations officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection about the recent processing delays.

One question AOPA posed to officials is whether staffing reductions are playing a role in delays such as those experienced by pilots at airports of entry in Florida as AOPA reported on March 25.

“The Customs and Border Protection GA Manager is inquiring about any staffing changes at Florida airports of entry through the Miami and Tampa CBP Field Operations Offices,” said Tom Zecha, AOPA manager of aviation security. “Customs and Border Protection has committed to communicating any changes that may have occurred, and will work to resolve the impact on the GA industry.”

Banyan Aviation, a fixed-base operator at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport told AOPA that customs staffing appeared to be reduced by late March, with two officers observed to be on duty at a given time instead of a more customary four or five. After several difficult days for inbound pilots during the March 21 to 24 period, busy intervals later in the month “did not yield any significant delays,” said Zecha.

The most severe delays and procedural difficulties reported to AOPA occurred on March 22. Rick Gardner, AOPA’s authorize representative for the Bahamas, Mexico, and Central America, described a chaotic scene when numerous aircraft arriving at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport had to wait almost three hours “from the time we landed until we were walking out of the U.S. Customs Building,” after a two-hour, fifteen-minute flight.

“We were trapped in our aircraft as we were moved first into a runup pad and then onto a taxiway as ATC struggled to find places for over 20 aircraft waiting for CBP processing,” he said in an email message. “To make matters worse, ATC lost control of the sequence of waiting aircraft and cleared some aircraft to the CBP ramp ahead of others who had landed first with predictable results.”

Gardner said that the 11-aircraft group ran into the delays “despite filing an eAPIS, calling CBP in advance and arriving on time.” The group’s planning included allowing for a notam advising of reduced service hours, he added.

A week prior, Gardner had to wait more than an hour on a customs ramp at Key West, Fla., despite calling ahead before departure from Cancun, Mexico. But a situation that began badly concluded amicably, he said.

“While on the ground we had to make two additional calls to the CBP communications center before an officer actually showed up,” he said. “To the officer’s credit, he was very courteous and apologetic and went out of his way to get us processed quickly.”

The processing officer’s courteous treatment of the arriving party “totally defused the situation,” Gardner said.

Asked if officials at either airport at which he had recently cleared customs discussed whether scheduling or staffing concerns were being addressed, Gardner replied, “Nobody mentioned any improvements.”

Zecha said AOPA staff remains engaged with customs on the issue, and is offering “suggestions and workable solutions” to mitigate any inconveniences caused by customs processing delays. AOPA will promptly report on the results of its discussions with customs officials about how pilots can minimize delays and speed their processing, and on what the future may hold for the agency’s operations.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.