Santa Maria Airport Adding Customs to Attract Business

Thursday, August 31, 2006
Santa Maria airport hopes to attract jet maker by adding customs agent
By Frank Nelson
The Santa Barbara (CA) News-Press

A customs port capable of handling incoming international flights could open at Santa Maria Public Airport within a couple of months, according to airport General Manager Gary Rice. He says the new facility, staffed by a single customs agent paid for by the airport, is a key element in a bid to attract international corporate jets and their well-heeled business passengers to Santa Maria. And if that plan works, it could give Santa Maria the edge when French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Falcon Jet Corp. makes a final decision where to establish its multimillion-dollar West Coast service center.

According to some reports, Dassault, which already has facilities in New Jersey, North Carolina and Arkansas, has narrowed its search for a suitable location to Santa Maria, Las Vegas and Reno.

The center that gets the final nod can look forward to an influx of around 150 highly-paid jobs plus all the spinoffs from hosting a company that sells and supports corporate jets with $30 million-plus price tags throughout North and South America, Asian Pacific Rim countries, and China.

“We’ve got the land for them and I think having Dassault here in Santa Maria is very viable,” says Mr. Rice, who’s been working on attracting the French plane maker for four years. He believes the strategy of being able to offer an international gateway can only strengthen Santa Maria’s bid.

The nearest such customs facilities are currently in Los Angeles and San Jose, but Mr. Rice says Santa Maria is pitching itself as a much faster and more efficient entry point than somewhere like LAX.

“For the sort of people who fly on corporate jets, time is money,” he says.

“They don’t want all the waiting, the screening, the hassle of using somewhere like LAX if they can be smoothly processed through Santa Maria.”

Enhancing the speedy turnaround, he says, are excellent nearby catering facilities for passengers while the jets can be refueled – more cheaply than in L.A. – cleaned and serviced right on the airfield.

To set up a facility that satisfies U. S. Customs and Border Protection, Santa Maria airport officials have to jump through a few hoops, but Mr. Rice says they are getting there and that he’s confident the effort will prove worthwhile.

Already the airport has spent about $140,000 renovating a general aviation building near the main terminal and converting it to a small, federal inspection station for security checks, baggage inspection and the safe handling of incoming trash.

The airport will pay around $125,000 annually to cover the salary, benefits and associated costs for a customs agent, a position that is likely to be advertised and filled internally by Customs and Border Protection.

The agent will work a 40-hour week, and Mr. Rice envisages that person going out to meet pre-arranged jet landings, escorting the passengers and crew into the customs facility, and then processing the paperwork and baggage.

Years ago the airport was designated a “foreign trade zone,” which means goods can be warehoused in transit duty-free, and Mr. Rice says that moves are under way to reactivate that status.

The remaining condition Santa Maria needs to meet before it can be certified as a port of entry is the installation of a T1 high-speed data transmission line that will hook the post into the sophisticated customs communications network.

Trash and other waste from the plane, which has to be kept sealed in case it contains any exotic bugs or other pests, will be picked up, transported, treated and disposed of by a local company, Medical Waste Environmental Engineers.

Initially, as Santa Maria carves out an international travel niche, Mr. Rice expects to attract between 15 and 25 flights per month from Mexico and Canada; once the service is up and running he hopes the airport will also become known as a gateway to Europe and Asia.

To travel those long distances, jets like the Gulfstream 4 need to take off with a full load of fuel, and that extra weight means they need a longer runway. No problem, says Mr. Rice.

Santa Maria is currently going through the planning process, including an environmental review, for extending its runway from 6,300 feet (the longest on the Central Coast, he says) to 8,000 feet.

He says adding another 1,700 feet will cost between $5 million and $6 million, mostly paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the airport is aiming for construction to be completed by 2008.

Despite the size of its infrastructure, Santa Maria airport has been finding life a struggle. Sandwiched between much better used airports in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria has limited schedules to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Partly in a search for future prosperity, if not survival, Santa Maria is reinventing itself as an international arrival point. But it’s a ploy that Mr. Rice believes will work. “The business jet market is huge,” he says.

“Businesspeople are flying more and more by corporate and private jet and less and less on scheduled airlines.”

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