U.S. Customs Extends Hours at Fort Lauderdale Airport

Nighttime travelers at delay-plagued Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport soon may find their trips a little smoother.

Starting Monday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will extend its evening hours at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, which will spare its small-plane traffic from making Customs detours at the neighboring airport.

Those extra hours will eliminate thousands of unnecessary takeoffs and landings each month from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, recently named among the destinations most troubled by delays.

''It means that the airport and the airspace surrounding the airport will function a lot more efficiently,'' said Clara Bennett, airport manager at Executive. ''It's going to have a very positive reduction in the number of flights in the area, which reduces noise and low-flying aircraft around the airport.''

It will also reduce travel time by as much as an hour for passengers onboard the private, corporate and charter planes bound for Executive that now have to stop elsewhere for Customs, Bennett said.

The move comes after years of urging from airport, government and congressional delegates.

Official Support

On Wednesday morning, U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and staffers for other members of Congress met with Customs officials to push for extended hours at Executive, which ranks as one of the nation's 10 busiest general aviation airports.

''It's going to be a significant help to the residents around the airport, in addition to the travelers trying to get in and out of Executive,'' Wasserman Schultz said.

Small planes arriving after 5 p.m. on international flights destined for Executive, currently have to clear Customs at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood or other area airports before taking off again for Executive. In addition to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, planes sometimes must fly as far as Naples, Palm Beach or Opa-locka for customs inspections, Bennett said.

About 10 to 15 flights destined for Executive stop at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood each weekday evening, said Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood spokesman Steve Belleme. On weekends and holidays, the number of planes doubles to 20 to 30.

9 AM TO 9 PM

To accommodate some of that traffic, Customs will remain open four additional hours -- from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. -- at Executive.

Customs plans to review the extended hours every 30 days over 120 days, to determine if the volume of planes justifies the change.

Extending inspection hours at Executive is just one of several initiatives recommended to reduce delays at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood.

Increased traffic at the airport, ranked as the fastest-growing major airport in the country, has led to mounting delays in recent months.

In May, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood was cited as one of six airports considered potential ''trouble spots'' for vacation travelers, according to testimony given before a U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee.

The delays reflect the downside of the rebound in air travel, which is at its strongest pace since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fort Lauderdale and the other airports named -- Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Newark, Washington-Dulles and Atlanta -- share similar traits: growing low-cost carriers, competitive airfares and increasing passengers.

Another idea for easing delays is shifting more small-plane traffic to the airport's shorter southern runway.