November 5, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
AOPA has requested that U.S. Customs and Border Protection reverse new service cutbacks to smaller general aviation aircraft arriving in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The agency cited budget constraints in requiring that private aircraft clear Customs in Fairbanks only between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily—eliminating the availability of service on a 24-hour basis if the inbound pilot made the arrangements during the business day.
AOPA has been informed that under the service reduction, aircraft unable to arrive in Fairbanks during regular business hours must wait until the next day, said Tom George, AOPA Alaska regional manager.
The service reduction narrows the flight-planning window, raising flight risks for numerous aircraft that fly from the contiguous states to Alaska through Canada along the Alaska Highway. Depending on the route of flight and aircraft capabilities, that trip often requires stops at Canadian airports, and re-entry into the United States, he said.
"Given the distance from the normal Canadian departure airports in Whitehorse or Dawson and average speed of a general aviation aircraft, this leaves only about a three or four-hour window to fly (after contacting Customs) in order to arrive by 4 p.m.," George wrote in a Nov. 4 letter to Susan T. Mitchell, CBP’s acting assistant commissioner for field operations in Washington, D.C.
"Given that weather sometimes delays departures, this further restricts general aviation travel. It also potentially creates a safety problem if pilots feel they are pressured to ‘push the weather’ to meet the Customs hours of operation, instead of waiting for afternoon convective activity to die down, and make an evening or night time arrival. Especially during the summer months, when northern Alaska experiences 24 hour daylight, the added ability to operate in the evening and during the night time greatly increases safety and access," he wrote.
George noted that using other airports of entry would not make flights safer or more efficient. Picking another destination would still require pilots to deal with a restricted time window, or the unavailability of fuel, as in Northway. Flying additional miles to Anchorage could be beyond the range of some general aviation aircraft. Flying to Anchorage also would incur the risk of encountering adverse weather when crossing two mountain ranges.
In requesting that CBP restore 24-hour access to Customs service in Fairbanks, AOPA also pointed out that visitors arriving in Fairbanks in general aviation aircraft—estimated at 2,000 annual visitor-days in one survey—"contribute to the economic support of the airport, the Fairbanks community and many go on to visit other parts of Alaska."
Note: The customs hours of operation at Fairbanks International Airport are presently from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. The CBP website has not been updated to reflect that an increase of staffing allowed CBP to resume weekend operations without special advance notification. Because the hours of operation also have not been updated, inbound pilots are reminded that they must call the port of entry prior to departure, in addition to filing an eAPIS notification.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.
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