In pilot program, three airports to subsidize pay for customs agents

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Three airports are working on a pilot program in which they will subsidize millions of dollars in pay for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors in order to increase staffing and reduce wait times to get through customs.

The programs should begin operating by year’s end.

CBP is partnering with three airports — Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Houston Bush Intercontinental — on the “reimbursable fee agreement program.”

The airports in the program are seeing their international arrivals grow. Miami’s international traffic has grown more than 15% since 2010, and more than 70% of passengers arriving during peak hours are non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

“Our ability to fund overtime hours for CBP officers during peak times will help to decrease passenger wait times that have suffered since sequestration,” said Emilio Gonzalez, aviation director for Miami Dade.

DFW applied to be part of the pilot program last spring, saying it would pay up to $3 million to help fund the cost of additional CBP staffing at the airport to speed arriving travelers’ trips through customs.

International flights tend to arrive at roughly the same time; DFW sees its biggest backups between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Although the plan has yet to be completed, the fund probably will be used to pay for overtime, said Cynthia Vega, manager of media relations for DFW.

She said that DFW has been getting tremendous support from CBP in its efforts to execute the plan.

Houston has yet to establish its budget but hopes to be able to implement its program before the end of the year. Bush Intercontinental is the nation’s 10th-largest airport and ranks eighth for international arrivals. It expects international arrivals to grow 3% for the current fiscal year.

The reimbursable fee agreement program is part of CBP’s Resource Optimization Strategy, which is a way for CBP to cope with the fact that its staffing has remained relatively the same since 2009 while trade and passenger arrivals have increased.

The optimization program is designed to maximize its existing programs, identify staffing needs and explore funding resources.

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 allowed CBP to create up to five partnerships or reimbursable fee agreements.

In addition to the three airports, the program includes the city of El Paso, Texas, and the South Texas Assets Consortium, which both have bridges connecting the U.S. and Mexico. The fee reimbursement program is designed to facilitate international trade as well as travel.

“These partnerships will allow greater flexibility for CBP to work with our stakeholders to support growth in trade and travel,” said CBP acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski. “Together, we can better facilitate the 4% to 5% continued growth anticipated over each of the next five years.”

The Commerce Department has projected that the U.S. can expect 4% average annual growth in tourism over the next five years. CBP has seen a 12% growth in air arrivals since 2009.

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