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Carlsbad airport sets sights on customs

Set to debut in September

International travelers on return flights through McClellan-Palomar Airport could avoid stopovers at other local airports as early as September, when officials with the Carlsbad airport say it will begin offering U.S. Customs services.

In June, the local U.S. Customs and Border Protection office granted the airport the first line of approvals it needed to begin offering customs services, according to local airport officials.

Airport organizers will begin the process by making modifications to its former administrative headquarters. The building will serve as a temporary federal inspection facility until the airport constructs its new terminal, estimated for completion by the end of 2008.

Modification efforts began Monday by replacing glass windows with temperate glass, according to airport manager Willie Vasquez. Security requirements also call for removing a wall and building a fence around the perimeter of its drop-off area in addition to upgrading IT facilities.

“We’re looking to start, tentatively, to begin service toward the end of September, but it’s all based on several approvals by the federal government,” Vasquez said. “We can set all the timelines we want, but they’ve also got their processes they have to go through.”

A spokesperson with the local U.S. Customs and Border Protection office was not immediately available Tuesday to comment on various approvals.

Leann Lardy, real estate project manager at the County Airports Department of Public Works, said customs officials met with airport administrators last week to conduct a walk-through of the area.

“It’s all moving forward,” she said. “We’re just trying to provide the service to people who need the service and try and get it moving along.”

Plans to establish a customs service at the airport were hailed by airport officials as a means of reducing passenger inconveniences.

Under federal law, passengers must make any necessary customs declarations at the first available site on their return home or entry into a foreign country. Because Carlsbad’s airport wasn’t equipped with a customs service, its passengers would have to stopover at the first available site they could land at.

Typically, smaller planes were routed through Brown Field, although some also made declarations in Calexico.

Airport spokesman Bill Polick said it’s too early to determine the extent to which Palomar’s service will alleviate traffic at other local airports, but said the service certainly adds a benefit to those who use it.

“It’s going to cut down on fuel because they don’t have to land and take off before they get to Palomar,” he said.

Designated as a “user fee airport,” Lardy said the county would pay customs to staff the service and recoup its costs by getting the airport to charge a fee -– set at $500 –- for each time an aircraft uses it service.

Customs officers will work seven days a week and will be available after-hours for a premium fee, according to Vasquez. The hours of operation have not yet been set, but Vasquez said it is looking to staff officials from about 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

He said the county will pay more than $100,000 per year to staff them.

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