Mar. 30 -- Before they ever reach the sign that reads "Bienvenidos a Fresno," travelers on Mexicana Airlines will get a thorough screening that has as much to do with bugs as it does with drugs or other contraband.
That's mainly because vocal agricultural leaders insisted on stringent safeguards at previous rounds of meetings with airline and city officials. Now they are saying that their wishes, for the most part, have been met and that the new inspection system at Fresno Yosemite International Airport could be a template for airports in other farming regions.
"We have the most current and modernized port of entry ag inspection processes anywhere in the United States," said Russ Widmar, Fresno director of aviation.
Widmar gave a tour Wednesday of the new federal inspection station, an activity of Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The facility will be dedicated in ceremonies today along with a celebration of the new air service.
Farm leaders such as Joel Nelsen, who heads California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, had cited the losses that the multibillion-dollar industry, a major economic engine in the central San Joaquin Valley, could sustain if hitchhiking pests triggered devastating trade quarantines and crop damage.
Nelsen said city and airport officials, along with Mexicana, "have been very transparent in efforts to address our concerns."
He said there is a risk that comes with the international flights from a region known to harbor some pests, "but I have reconciled myself to the fact the flights will come. The airport and Mexicana are taking steps to decrease that added risk."
Tony Fazio, who farms near the airport, said: "There's never a 100% guarantee, but I believe they have done everything they possibly can do. My thoughts are all positive."
Manuel Cunha Jr., who heads the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said: "We asked them to do what they had to do, and they did it. Ag kept its word. We can go home and sleep at night and say, 'We did everything to protect our farms.'"
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League in Fresno, said he is encouraged by what Mexicana and the city are doing, including requiring X-rays of all checked luggage and carry-on material that will arrive in Fresno from planes departing from Guadalajara.
Guadalajara is a hub, Widmar said, and passengers coming from there could board at locations that include Buenos Aires, Argentina; Bogota, Colombia; Miami; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico -- "a dozen different cities."
Bedwell, Widmar, another airport official and a representative of California Citrus Mutual traveled to Guadalajara with Mexicana officials last month to get a firsthand look at what the airline was doing to take precautions on planes headed to the United States.
Bedwell said the airline has taken such steps in Guadalajara as establishing an education campaign to warn travelers about carrying pests on board, setting up amnesty bins where passengers can dispose of materials that could contain pests, putting up lights to attract insects away from planes and laying out traps to monitor insects.
Widmar said inspectors with Mexicana, beginning in January, were opening every checked bag before it left Mexico for the United States, "looking for things like explosives and drugs -- and now ag products."
Mexicana already has flights from Mexico into Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Bedwell said the inspection system that will first be used Saturday in Fresno could become a model for other regions, perhaps including Stockton, which has been approached by Aeromexico.
Kern County's Meadows Field is adding an inspection facility, and Mexicana flights to that location could begin as early as August, said Ray Bishop, director of Kern County Airports.
Roxanne Hercules, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said the staff at the Fresno inspection station will have four officers from that agency, another two agriculture officers, including a canine specialist, and a supervisor.
Widmar said a dog, en route from Hawaii to Fresno, has been trained to sniff out out fruits, vegetables, flowers and meat in suitcases and other baggage.
That dog will be brought into the area where checked luggage already has passed through X-ray machines and where passengers gather with their carry-on luggage after being cleared through a primary processing area where they show passports and other travel documents.
All hand-carried luggage is also X-rayed, Hercules said.
She said agricultural officers examine the emptied plane thoroughly, picking up trash for proper disposal. Trash is also taken from amnesty bins and placed into a steam sterilization system that reaches 212 degrees.
The inspection facility is a modular steel building of about 11,000 square feet erected starting in mid-February.
Its cost, including equipment it houses, was about $3.75 million, Widmar said, all of it paid by the city's Department of Airports.
The building includes three detention areas, basically cells that have benches and a commode -- for women, men and juveniles. There is also a padded "search room."
Widmar said the cost of salaries for inspectors at the facility will range from $1.2 million to $1.3 million annually.
He said the building "is intended to have a life of 10 years."
"But it's so well-constructed, we will have it a lot longer," Widmar said, adding that recent rain storms have tested its roof. "I don't know of many new buildings that don't have a leak. This one didn't."
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