Latrobe Airport to Seek Customs Agents

From Canada to the Caribbean, Europe to Africa, L.J. Aviation offers international charter flights at airports nationwide, while maintaining its headquarters at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, near Latrobe.

But the family-run enterprise says it could really spread its wings if direct international business and pleasure flights operating out of the Unity Township facility didn't have to make stops for customs inspection along the way.

"It would really enhance our situation here by not having to stop in an outlying location," said Mary Ann Kilkeary, L.J. Aviation's charter director. "You're only stopping now because of the need to clear a customs issue."

The company is all in favor of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority's decision Tuesday to explore the possibility of obtaining U.S. Customs agents for Arnold Palmer Regional.

The agents would only have to to be on hand for the occasional international flight.

"We're thinking maybe half a dozen, maybe a dozen times a year we might need customs," said airport Manager Gabe Monzo.

For the past year, the airport authority has tried unsuccessfully to negotiate for part-time customs agents with service officials based at Pittsburgh International Airport. But according to Monzo, the Customs Service is unwilling or unable to serve flights originating from international airports that land at regional airports outside Allegheny County.

So the authority penned a letter to U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, Allegheny County, asking for his help. Murphy advised the authority to draw up a resolution spelling out the airport's need.

But acquiring customs agents can be a difficult process for regional airports because of federal funding restraints and worker shortages, said Michael Lovejoy, field operations director for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Baltimore field office, which oversees the Pittsburgh operation.

"We currently have over 300 federally established ports-of-entry staffed nationwide and internationally, so requests like this would stretch our staff even thinner based on the appropriations we receive from Congress," Lovejoy said. And changes since 911 make adding agents even more challenging for sites such as Arnold Palmer Regional. "I can understand their desires, but when they look into it further, they may come to the conclusion that they're just not ready to pursue it with their level of activity."

Lovejoy said that a program established by Congress in the late 1980s allows airports to apply through the respective state governor for the right to staff and pay the salaries of customs agents. Such facilities then have the opportunity to achieve official port-of-entry status, which would make federal dollars available to fund customs-border protection services.

"Allentown Airport was actually one of the first facilities in this program, and it today is recognized as an official port-of-entry," Lovejoy said.

Monzo said the authority is willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain the service.

"If there's some kind of rule that we don't know about, or if there's some kind of infrastructure that we need, we'll do it. It's just a matter of us being able to prepare for it, and we'll do whatever it takes," Monzo said.

The next airport authority meeting will be at 8:30 a.m. March 13.

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