U.S. Customs at Shannon too limited, say operators

 - March 30, 2010, 6:31 AM

Pre-clearance of business aircraft for U.S. Customs and immigration checks began at Shannon Airport on the west coast of Ireland on March 1. However, contrary to earlier expectations, it is restricted to Part 91 private flights and operators can fly only into a limited number of U.S. airports.

During the first week of March, the screening process by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has seen operators taking between 75 and 90 minutes to be cleared for departure. In some cases, this is still longer than the process takes at U.S. airports, but there are expectations that it will be accelerated following a 30-day trial period for the new procedure.

The European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) has called on the U.S. government to extend the pre-clearance option at Shannon to business aircraft operated under commercial rules. The group says that the current restriction on pre-clearance eliminates 70 percent of European business aircraft.

“Rapid and unhindered access between the U.S. and Europe is a vital and integral part of the service provided by business aviation,” said EBAA president Brian Humphries at a ceremony in Shannon to mark the start of the new process. “The EBAA warmly welcomes the excellent work done by members of this sector working closely with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to create a ‘U.S. border’ at Shannon Airport. However, because of the indivisible nature of commercial and non-commercial business aviation it is essential that this new service is provided to both elements of this non-airline sector.”

According to Brendan O’Grady, managing director of Universal Aviation’s Shannon FBO, Irish officials and service providers were scheduled to consult with the CBP at the end of last month to discuss early experience of the new process and how it might be improved. Universal will advocate an extension of the hours in which pre-clearance is available beyond the current limits of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Aircraft operators have to book a pre-clearance slot at least 24 hours in advance and before the close of business on the previous day (7 p.m. Sunday through Friday, and 3 p.m. on Saturday). All Apis information about passengers and crew must be submitted at least 60 minutes before the pre-clearance screening slot.

When the aircraft lands at Shannon, all ground services such as refueling and catering have to be completed before the passengers and crew can proceed to the CBP facility in Shannon’s main terminal building. The processing for business aviation is conducted in an  area separate from that already used for scheduled airline flights.

With the aircraft closed, the crew and passengers are taken to the terminal along with all their cabin and hold baggage, which has to be individually identified. Once the CBP pre-clearance is completed, they are escorted back to the aircraft by two CBP officials, along with Irish police. At this point the aircraft is inspected for radiation before being cleared for immediate takeoff.

The actual pre-clearance of passengers and crew takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
Universal provides full support for operators using pre-clearance, and passengers can wait in its lounge before being taken to the terminal to complete the process. Its Trip Support service can book pre-clearance slots or operators can do this themselves by calling CBP in Ireland (+ 353-61-771946). More information about the pre-clearance requirements and a list of U.S. airports to which flights can fly from Shannon can be found at www.cbp.gov.

Despite the apparently slow processing time, Universal Aviation operations manager Derek Collins said that pre-clearance at Shannon is still an attractive option because it is conducted at the start of a transatlantic flight and not at the end when tired passengers would prefer to depart the airport quickly. It is an especially viable option for operators whose aircraft would, in any case, need to refuel before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The service is available to operators of all nationalities and can be used by those traveling under the U.S. visa waiver program as long as the aircraft operator is pre-approved for this by CBP. Operators are required to pay a user fee and to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for disposing of garbage (including food waste) at the U.S. airport at which they land.