Airport halts federal inspection area
Severe US Customs and Border Protection staffing shortages led aviation officials to stop construction of a federal inspection station at Miami International Airport.
The inspection area was meant to offer additional space to screen passengers at the nation’s fastest-growing airport, but aviation chief Emilio Gonzalez said the project did not make sense with current federal staffing levels.
“If we have to restart [construction] we can restart it fairly quickly,” said Mr. Gonzalez, director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. “It’s just that having an empty room serves no purpose.”
When federal budget cuts or sequestration took effect in March they left customs and immigration staffed at about 50% and eliminated overtime pay for an airport that reported a 4.2% hike in international traffic in the first six months of the year for a total of 9.9 million foreign arrivals by June.
The result was two- to three-hour-long wait times for passengers as smaller teams tried to serve the bustling airport, where about 70% of international arrivals during peak hours have foreign passports.
But with fewer customs and immigration staff, airport officials said they had to consolidate operations in the airport’s north terminal and forego creating the new federal inspection area.
“Ideally, we’d have three” inspection stations, said Greg Chin, communications director for Miami-Dade Aviation Department. “Now we only have two.”
But aviation officials expect to reduce wait times for passengers arriving at Miami International, thanks to an agreement with the US Customs and Border Protection agency that will allow the airport to pay overtime to customs agents stationed there.
It will be the first time the local airport can cover the overtime costs and attempt to match staffing levels to the spike in international arrivals. The airport made a $6 million allocation, funded from its revenue, in the months following sequestration to cover the overtime expense.
“There are people who spend more time in line than they do on the flight coming in…,” Mr. Gonzalez told members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce this month. “Everybody coming through this airport needs to get in here in an expedited manner. If they don’t, they’ll go elsewhere, and that will be our problem [at the airport] and everybody in this room’s problem.”
International tourists offered a strong boost to the local economy last year, staying a week on average and typically spending nearly $2,222 per trip, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.