Monday, June 19, 2017
Customs facility at South Bend airport takes a step forward. Now it just needs flights
By Erin Blasko
The South Bend (IN) Tribune
Mike Daigle, executive director of South Bend International Airport, stands inside the new customs facility at the airport in October. The facility recently opened to general aviation aircraft.
SOUTH BEND — The general aviation portion of the new federal customs facility at South Bend International Airport is open for business, but it could be weeks or even months before the $11 million facility is ready for commercial traffic.
Construction of the 38,600-square-foot facility is complete, but federal officials have yet to fully sign off on it, Mike Daigle, airport executive director, said last week.
At issue is the disposal of “regulated garbage,” Daigle said, which includes animal products, fruits and vegetables, and processed products.
“The USDA regulated garbage approvals are in place for corporate and general aviation aircraft, so that’s all set to go,” Daigle said, but “we still have a few speed bumps we have to get through” on the commercial side.
“The issue really is pretty easy. We have a process that’s in place to handle the regulated garbage,” he said. “Now it’s just taking it from the scope of a seven- to eight-passenger airplane to a 150-passenger airplane and making sure all the things work as advertised.”
Daigle said the facility has yet to service any private or corporate aircraft since opening June 5 with one U.S. Customs and Border Security officer.
“It takes time for the flying community out there to know they can now come direct to South Bend,” he said. “So that word is out there and being populated throughout the country and internationally.”
As for the question of when commercial flights would begin, he said, “We’re in conversation with some people who are capable of flying international flights. We just don’t have anything we can announce until all of the federal approvals are in place.”
Daigle previously mentioned Cancun, Mexico, the Bahamas, Toronto and Ireland as possible routes. He said flights could be offered weekly or biweekly as well as seasonally or year-round depending on demand.
“Commercial flights could mean opportunities to go directly from South Bend to some leisure destinations to enjoy a week during the great winter months we have,” Daigle joked this week. “And then come right back to South Bend and be just minutes from your home.”
As for the general aviation portion of the new facility, “I think (it) could be a huge economic boon to the local economy … a pretty good game-changer for our region,” Daigle said.
He said the airport eventually hopes to add freight to the mix as well.
“Freight is a third component … with a whole different set of processes and procedures depending on where the cargo is coming from, what’s its volume, what’s its route coming to the U.S.,” he said.
“We have some initial work done on that,” he said, “but it’s probably out a number of months.”
Abraham Marcus, president of the Airport Authority board, said the ability to ship international freight to and from the airport could be the biggest game-changer of all.
“Just think about freight moving in here and not having to go through one of the other locations, Chicago for instance,” Marcus said. “You can move freight through here X number of times faster than you can through Chicago.”
The airport announced plans for international service in 2014, and work on the new customs facility began late the next year.
The new facility is divided into two parts: a general aviation facility for private and corporate aircraft and a federal inspection station for commercial aircraft.
Officials had originally expected the general aviation portion of the facility to open last October, with the commercial portion to follow soon after that.
A 2012-13 study found that about 70 internationally registered private aircraft — primarily from Mexico, Ireland and Canada — flew into South Bend over a 12-month period, not including U.S. registered aircraft that came from a foreign country.
Additionally, about 15,000 passengers who live within a 60-mile radius of South Bend made flights to Cancun during that time, the study found.
The new customs facility was largely funded by state and federal grants, including $7.9 million from the Federal Aviation Administration and $436,580 from the Indiana Department of Transportation.