Airport nears permanent port-of-entry status

WASHINGTON -- San Antonio's effort to make its international airport a permanent port of entry cleared a major hurdle Wednesday when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff signed off on the proposal.

The secretary's action begins a 60-day comment period, to be followed by review from federal agencies, before a permanent designation can be granted.

But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, considers those steps perfunctory and final approval certain.

He predicted the airport would receive port-of-entry status that would allow private aircraft from Mexico and foreign countries to land in San Antonio without first clearing U.S. Customs at other ports, such as Laredo.

"The city of San Antonio will benefit from this greatly," said Smith, who said the designation would "enhance business, commerce and trade relationships throughout Mexico."

Smith, whose congressional district includes the airport, urged Chertoff in May to expedite the airport application for permanent status.

The effort was backed by W. Ralph Basham, U.S. Customs commissioner.

Recent statistics kept by Customs show that 50 percent of the foreign private flights to San Antonio originate in Monterrey, Mexico.

The San Antonio airport has been accepting those flights through a temporary waiver from Customs. The airport has been operating with a temporary waiver since 2001.

San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Free Trade Alliance San Antonio and several other business entities have pushed the city's congressional delegation to get a permanent designation from the Bush administration.

There is no organized opposition to the permanent designation.

"This is an important step for the city," Hardberger said in a statement. "We will now be able to receive international, corporate and personal aircraft directly."

The designation, or lack of one, does not affect commercial aircraft flying into San Antonio from Mexico and other foreign origins.