On February 23, 2010, the US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and US Ambassador to Ireland Daniel M Rooney formally announced the expansion of preclearance services for private aircraft departing Ireland’s Shannon Airport for the US beginning March 1, 2010. Then – and now – Shannon Airport became unique in that it is the only airport in the world to offer private passengers pre-clearance to 220 US locations without stepping on US soil. Jo Murray reports
Flights to the US from Shannon are essentially treated in the same way as US domestic flights when they land on US soil, explains Joe Buckley, Business Development Manager at Shannon Airport. “And passengers receive a friendly Irish welcome,” he adds. Essentially, by placing US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a business aviation gateway to the US situated outside the US – namely at Shannon Airport – congestion at border control within the US for private passengers can be avoided, thereby facilitating the rapid movement of passengers through the FBO stateside.
CBP is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s largest and most complex organisations. Its stated priority is to keep terrorists and weapons out of the US. It also has responsibility for securing and facilitating trade and travel while enforcing hundreds of US regulations, including immigration and drug laws. CBP has a huge range of responsibilities and, for the last 18 months, they have been executed magnificently at this western point of Ireland.
The new procedures prompted some infrastructure changes at the airport, including the completion of a purpose-built facility for business aviation passengers. The airport also offers advantages in both the delivery and price of fuel. Ships berthed in the adjacent River Shannon pump fuel along pipes to tanks enabling “hydrant fuelling”. The airport also enjoys a large land bank for development should it become necessary and Shannon has already demonstrated that it is committed to encouraging business aviation, not least by refraining from imposing curfews and slots.
Two international service providers have set up bases here: Universal Aviation and Signature Flight Support. Derek Collins, General Manager at Universal Aviation Shannon, says that there are definitely more enquiries coming through about pre-clearance. “Word is getting around,” he says. “There is a marked increase in enquiries, especially from the Middle East.” Universal Aviation Shannon facilitated the ground support for the first two private flights to pre-clear all Customs and Immigration at the new facility last year.
Michael Ryan, General Manager Ireland, Signature Flight Support says that he has high hopes for the Shannon operation. He is hoping to see three to four pre-cleared flights a day following the recent relaxation of regulations at Shannon and Signature is using its worldwide network of 108 locations to spread the word. Signature offers dedicated fuelling services during inspections along with the only FBO facilities, customer lounge and hangarage on the main airport apron.
Ryan is referring to the easing of restrictions on the use of auxiliary power units (APUs) or ground power units (GPUs) during radiation screening of business aircraft inbound to the US. Ryan explains that this relaxation of CBP regulations makes a massive difference. By running an APU or GPU, the aircraft’s electrical systems continue to operate. This is vital because it avoids spending time having to power the aircraft back up following the Radiation Isotope Identifier (RIID) scan and it prevents the loss of the flight data loaded into the aircraft’s systems. Flight crews are then not burdened with reloading this data and vital time on the ground at Shannon is reduced. Ryan explains that this means a lay-over of 90 minutes is now down to 60 minutes – or even 45 in exceptional circumstances.
Buckley adds in relation to the first preclearance flight since the policy change: “Looking at the timings of it, the aircraft blocked on at 0915, and blocked off at 1000. From startup to shutdown, 45 minutes. That included CBP preclearance with the APU on, refuelling, and flight plan clearance.”
As NBAA reported, effective June 15, 2011, APUs may remain on while RIID checks are conducted on business aircraft entering the US, as long as exhaust vents for those units are 8ft off the ground or higher. Aircraft with APU exhaust outlets lower than 8ft may still need to shut down, but power may be maintained through use of GPUs. The decision followed nearly two years of work between NBAA and CBP to find an acceptable compromise. “Now, we may not always achieve a 45-minute turn,” Buckley notes. “Sometimes we may even be faster, though a 60-minute turn is now a realistic expectation.”
CBP had been concerned that hot exhaust from APUs could harm its officers, and also about the potential for interference with its scanning devices from onboard electronics. Those concerns proved to be unfounded, and the change greatly streamlines the CBP’s radiation inspections, without sacrificing security protections.
While Shannon may now offer an even quicker stop prior to crossing the Atlantic, Buckley says there’s no reason flight crews and their passengers couldn’t pause and stay awhile, too. “We’re more than an airport at the edge of the Atlantic for a technical stop,” he says. “We’re focusing very strongly on business aviation with the development of a Centre of Excellence , and we’d like to see companies make investments here. Shannon, after all, has the largest concentration of US multi-national companies in any one industrial location in Ireland. We also have a unique tourism package and would love for people to stay over from time to time to enjoy this. We have got a number of five-star castle hotels and while here visitors can take a trip to visitor attractions of world renown in this neck of the woods, including the Cliffs of Moher, or even play a round at some of the breathtaking links golf courses in the region.”
Both Collins and Ryan point out that Shannon has been an aviation trailblazer in many respects. It has been a world class aircraft leasing location (GPA was based here), it has had a thriving MRO community and duty free sales were born here.
Now, a major marketing programme is underway. Ryan says: “Shannon now has a unique global selling point. It can become a crossroads for international business aviation and there are many opportunities that will flow from this. The follow-through could include becoming a registration and service centre for corporate jets and a back-office for operators. In turn, this will potentially bring a lot of high net-worth individuals to Shannon and create a tourism and potential foreign direct investment opportunity as well.”
Speaking at a joint Shannon Airport and Shannon Development conference in June 2011, Sean Raftery, Managing Director, Universal Aviation UK and Ireland, said that opportunity now knocks for Shannon. “As the company that handled the first aircraft to pre-clear under the new streamlined process, we are excited to say that it works. Our clients were impressed with the speed of the process. With this increased efficiency, coupled with a favourable tax regime, and Shannon’s strategic location, Shannon is now an even more time and cost-efficient tech stop for operators travelling from Europe or the Middle East to the US.”
Shannon Airport Director Mary Considine said at the same event: “The changes … are extremely timely … and will be a real catalyst for significant development of business aviation at Shannon. Business aviation grew by 10% in 2010 and we are experiencing strong growth for the first five months of 2011. There has also been a significant number of enquiries from international operators since the recent changes were announced. It’s not just only about us having preclearance facilities, , as we are an extremely user friendly airport, with easy access and good support services on the ground. We are also on the main flight path for east-west traffic, which is a huge bonus.”