Bizav awaits change as Customs is added to DHS

 - January 15, 2008, 6:17 AM

Philip Spayd, Northeast regional director for U.S. Customs, has high hopes for the success of the sweeping new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He recently told the Connecticut Business Aviation Group, “Keep your eye on it. It’s going to move fast and it is going to affect you.”

Spayd hopes that integrating a number of agencies will streamline communications and smooth some of the personnel logjams that have created problems in the past. For instance, he said that while he recognizes the role of employee unions to protect government workers, under the current rules one bad fitness report by a manager could result in a three-day hearing and a stack of printed documentation two feet thick. “I know the President isn’t always regarded that highly,” said Spayd, “but when the Homeland Security Act was passed, he had 60 days to develop an implementation outline. It was delivered the very same day the law passed.”

Spayd’s advice to corporate operators for the future is to work with the government as openly and frequently as possible. He said regular advance notice of incoming passengers is one good way to establish lines of communications. The payoff would come after a terrorist event. “We’re trying to build a resilient system,” he said, “that will be able to bounce back quickly after the next event. Those who have established lines of communication are the ones who will be able to get back to business the soonest.”

Spayd outlined the mission of U.S. Customs and its role within the Homeland Security Department. “Every year we have 470 million people coming into this country, 130 million cars and 19 million trucks, rail cars and containers. It takes half a day to inspect a container. You have to establish a risk-management approach to get your arms around that large of a problem.”

For business aviation that can mean providing as much passenger information as possible to customs agents as far in advance as possible. Airlines and charter operators comply with the advanced passenger information system (APIS). The data is processed by customs and run through an automated targeting system. In the case of airlines, trained behavior analysts also check out passengers before they enplane. Spayd said out of 350 passengers on an inbound flight, the APIS system can narrow down the dozen or so who warrant further scrutiny. He would not elaborate on the criteria involved in the automated targeting system.

At the Connecticut meeting, Dean Saucier, NBAA Northeast regional representative, asked if there were any way that Part 91 operators could tap into the Part 135 system, whereby the operator is eligible to pay the overtime fee for a Customs inspector to ensure that the inspector will be on hand to meet the incoming aircraft. Spayd responded that 9/11 has strained the overtime budget at customs, and that much of the manpower funding has been diverted to border crossing areas. As a double whammy, with fewer airline passengers flying, less cash is going into the overtime fund.

One representative from a large flight department asked if there were any way to refocus valuable Customs resources. “We represent absolutely zero risk,” he said. “And yet Customs has to inspect our aircraft every time we come back into the country. It wastes our time and yours. I know who my passengers are and nothing gets on our airplanes that hasn’t been checked.”

Another attendee suggested modeling a program after the FAA’s designated engineering representative system, in which maintenance representatives from businesses are inspected and tested annually by the FAA. In return, they are able to sign off inspections and procedures in the agency’s name. Could Homeland Security audit a flight operation and then accept its judgment that no person or thing was coming in on its aircraft that could pose a security threat?

Spayd responded sympathetically, but realistically. He said, “My official response is that I am a field agent and I will pass your suggestion on to the decision makers.