Let's All Fly Over
Stancie and I love flying to the Bahamas every year. The 700 or more islands arrayed to the southeast of Florida are a pilot's paradise with unbelievably clear water, spectacular beaches and friendly people. But the return trip is annoyingly complicated by a now-out-of-date U.S. Customs rule that I hope can change.
It was in the 1970s, as I recall, that Customs issued new rules requiring pilots returning from south of the border to land at the closest airport of entry to their border crossing. That means pilots returning from the Bahamas or other island vacation spots, can fly no further north than Fort Pierce, Florida, before landing to clear Customs. If you can fly at 23,000 feet or above you can go as far north as Wilmington, North Carolina, by using the oceanic route system. Pilots who fly in the high altitudes can also get specific "over flight permits" from Customs to continue beyond the border, but it's a hassle and not available to most GA pilots.
Customs said the requirement for landing at the border crossing would help deter drug smuggling in general aviation airplanes which was rampant at the time. Since I can't imagine a drug smuggler checking in with Customs at any airport, how this restriction helped reduce smuggling is beyond me. Only those pilots with nothing to hide taxi up to the Customs office.
Drug smuggling in light airplanes probably still happens, but is far less common than 30 years ago. Now the major Customs concern is terrorism so it is more interested in keeping track of people leaving and entering the country than in finding contraband. That's why the eAPIS program that requires all pilots to inform Customs, and then receive prior permission, before flying out of or back into the country was established and put in force last year. The eAPIS preclearance report we must now all file on the web contains every kind of identity information for each person in the airplane that you can think of, along with complete identity information on the airplane itself. Passport numbers, dates of birth, addresses and the works are all in the Customs computer system before a pilot takes off.
With such complete information in hand, why do we need to land at the border in Florida, Texas or California? With eAPIS now in force, not one bit of security would be lost if pilots fly to the most convenient airport of entry instead of the one where they cross the border.
On every return from the Bahamas, the stop in Fort Pierce for Customs demands a second time-and-money-wasting fuel stop for us. My Baron can't quite make it from Fort Pierce to New York, but I could easily fly from Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas to New York with only a single combined fuel and Customs stop farther north. I am not objecting to the eAPIS preclearance system, I find it works just fine, but I want Customs to give something back. Letting pilots overfly the airport of entry at the border and continue to a convenient stop would be a just trade in return for the eAPIS requirements.