Summer 2024

Precleared Advantage

Since 2010, business jet passengers have been able to preclear US customs and border requirements at Ireland’s Shannon Airport. EVA reveals the background to the much-valued facility

There can be few better examples of what can be achieved through industry cooperation than the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) preclearance offered to business jets flying through Shannon Airport, close to Limerick, Ireland. A natural ‘tech stop’ for fuel since the beginning of transatlantic air travel, since March 2010 Shannon has also gained favoured status for allowing passengers and crew preclearance that means their journey into the US continues as though they were flying domestically.

Ken Fielding, General Manager at Signature Aviation’s Shannon FBO, summarises the advantages of preclearance: “It enables our customers to complete the required immigration, customs and agricultural checks before flying to the US, meaning a swifter and more efficient arrival process at their destination. After clearing in Shannon there are approximately 200 US airports to which they can operate.”

Shannon’s CBP officers are US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees, US citizens stationed at Shannon for the duration of their posting and available to business jet operators with 24 hours’ advanced notice. Commercial passengers bound for the US are also eligible to preclear, the facility having opened to the airlines in August 2009.

The US and Ireland had agreed to a pre-inspection immigration facility in Ireland in 1986. The first opened at Shannon Airport in 1988 and in 1994 a similar facility was developed in Dublin Airport, but passengers still had to clear customs on their arrival in the US.

 

Path to preclearance
Now Founding Executive Director at the Irish Business and General Aviation Association (IBGAA), Joe Buckley was part of the Shannon Airport Task Force set up to pursue and implement full preclearance. He explains: “Up to 9/11, the US used separate officers to carry out customs and immigration inspections at their ports of entry and Shannon only had immigration officials. After 9/11, the DHS was created, including CBP, which took responsibility for customs and immigration. This meant that one CBP officer could do all the necessary clearances for customs, immigration and agriculture.

“In 2006, US Ambassador Kenny met with the Irish Department of Transport and suggested that Shannon and Dublin should become full preclearance facilities, since the US wanted to maximise the value of its CBP officers. In parallel, Shannon had been looking at extending its pre-inspection facility to full preclearance and engaged the services of a consultant to complete a feasibility study. The airport was also actively lobbying the US embassy for the introduction of full preclearance and had the support of several US Congressmen.”

Buckley acknowledges that the process was slow and threw up multiple challenges. Its ultimate success, he believes, was down to: “…great relationships, support from key players and a huge lobbying effort. The US embassy in Dublin kicked off the process when the ambassador issued a statement after my discussions with embassy officials. It took a few people by surprise, not least in the Irish Government.

“We received fantastic support from Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and his officials. During a period when no progress was being made, I met him on a Sunday afternoon during a fuel stop at Shannon. That direct engagement helped push the project forward.”

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) was also deeply involved, as Doug Carr, SVP, Safety, Security, Sustainability & International Operations, explains: “We saw a dramatic reduction in air travel and access to the US post-9/11. The CBP had experience with preclearance for commercial flights coming to the US from Canada and we worked with them to identify Shannon as a convenient spot for preclearance into the US from Europe.”

Carr says Shannon was the airport of choice for several reasons, including historically favourable fuel prices and its willingness to support business aircraft operations. More importantly, preclearance requires that authority be granted to armed US officials at overseas airports. Frequently a limiting factor for business aviation preclearance, this was not a problem at Shannon, largely thanks to its layout, with an ‘FBO ramp’ close to the commercial gates enabling easy access to the preclearance facility.

 

Smoothing the way
Full preclearance for business jets operating private non-revenue flights finally became available in 2010 and in 2011 non-scheduled commercial charter flights also became eligible. Buckley and Carr both reference problems that kept aircraft on the ground longer than they had hoped, but each issue was worked through as it arose. Carr recalls the effort to smooth those areas of friction: “Early on, for example, we frequently saw CBP agents asking for APUs to be turned off. We looked at the problem and came up with a guide that allowed APUs with exhausts more than 8ft above ground level to remain on, protecting CBP personnel while they do their work and avoiding the possibility of technical problems when restarting APUs. It involved lots of work with CBP headquarters and the field office at Shannon.”

Since then, says Carr, “We’ve further tweaked the procedures and Shannon’s preclearance has turned into a fantastic facility, especially for flights where the destination’s CBP office is unable to support the hours the operator needs.” In addition, CBP recently introduced a passport control app, which allows travellers to begin the process of preclearance before they arrive at the airport.

Shannon’s FBOs, operated by Alliance Flight Support, Signature and Universal Aviation, all use preclearance. For its part, Universal is careful to reiterate that preclearance appointments must be made at least 24 hours in advance and further clarifies that Shannon’s CBP provision has two preclearance areas. One is for private/charter flights with 20 passengers or less, the other for flights with more than 20 passengers; in the latter case, passengers preclear by standing in line with commercial airline passengers, albeit fast-tracked using a separate business class line.
Signature’s Fielding concludes by describing how the company guides passengers through preclearance. “Once aircraft refuelling is underway, we take the passengers and crew to the main terminal, through a dedicated VIP screening area and then into the CBP facility to be cleared. One crew member can remain at the aircraft to oversee fuelling. Baggage can also remain onboard but must be accessible and visible for inspection.

“The cleared passengers and crew are taken back to the aircraft with a CBP agent to coincide with the end of refuelling. The agent checks the aircraft and baggage, then the passengers can board for departure. The time taken depends on how long it takes to refuel but is usually 45 to 60 minutes.”

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