One fast-growing U.S. carrier: ICE Air

As many airlines downsize and scrimp on amenities, one carrier offers leather seats, ample legroom and free food. But few want a ticket.

This carrier is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for finding and deporting undocumented immigrants. A crackdown on illegal immigration has led to a spike in deportations and the creation of a de facto airline to send the deportees home.

The air service, called Repatriate by air-traffic controllers, is known simply as ICE Air to agency employees. Its planes have headrests emblazoned with ICE's name and seal. In-flight service is polite.

“For a lot of these immigrants, it has been a long journey to the U.S.,” said Michael Pitts, chief of flight operations for deportations and removals at ICE. “This is going to be the last impression they have of the United States. We want to provide good service.”

Pitts, a former military pilot, said ICE Air operates much like a commercial carrier, flying passengers to hub cities where they connect to international flights. But those hub cities – such as Mesa, Ariz., and Alexandria, La., which are close to illegal-immigrant detention sites – are relatively obscure. And final destinations are primarily in Latin America, including up to three flights daily to Guatemala City and two to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Pitts also recently launched service to the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.

In all, the U.S. deports people to more than 190 countries. Outside of Mexico, ICE flew home 76,102 illegal immigrants in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 72,187 last year and 50,222 two years ago.

ICE Air's patrons are what the airline industry calls “non-revenue passengers,” since Washington foots the bill at $620 a person on average for the one-way flight home. The agency flies 10 aircraft, twice as many as last year, including leased and government jets.

From Kansas City, Pitts' team coordinates with 24 ICE field offices. On a recent morning, staffers tracked seven flights to Central America on an electronic wall map. Three schedulers worked phones and e-mailed frantically to place immigrants on future flights.

“We have 30 El Salvadoran aliens ready to be removed,” an official at an Arizona detention facility said by phone. Patty Ridley checked her roster and confirmed the seats on a flight to leave Mesa, Ariz., for San Salvador two weeks later. Another scheduler, Dawnesa Williams, who previously worked as a corporate travel agent, coordinated the journey of an illegal immigrant from Bakersfield, Calif.

Like mainstream carriers, ICE knows it gets more bang for the buck if it can fill every seat, so it doesn't schedule any flight until it has a critical mass of deportees. “We are making a valiant attempt to overbook,” said Pitts. Sometimes passengers get bumped, he said, “to make room for priority cases.” Those might be convicted criminals who are wanted by their country or individuals eager to get home due to a family emergency.

Before dawn on a recent day, supervisor Rosemarie Williams gathered 13 crew members – unarmed contract security personnel who double as flight attendants – at a civilian airstrip to brief them on RPN 742, a flight scheduled to depart at 9a.m. from Laredo, Texas, to Guatemala City. Of 128 deportees, six were female and three were in handcuffs.

The swanky Boeing 737-800, leased from Miami Air International, had 172 brown leather seats and a single-class configuration. Co-pilot Thomas Hall volunteered that the company is used to flying heavyweights, like former President Bill Clinton and President Bush when they were campaigning. Miami Air wouldn't discuss its specific clients, but its Web site touts “incomparable service” for corporations, sports teams and political candidates who “trust us to get them where they need to go, when they need to be there.”

At 8 a.m. two buses and two vans packed with immigrants pulled up alongside the plane. ICE agent Roland Pastramo boarded each vehicle, clutching a clipboard with passenger names. “Good morning,” he said loudly in Spanish. “Your flying time to Guatemala City will be 2.5 hours … Watch your step. Good luck.”

Each passenger is entitled to 40 pounds of luggage, which is carefully labeled. The tag on a big, black duffel bag loaded onto the flight to Guatemala listed the following contents: microwave, toys, VCR and an electric saw. “We don't charge them for bringing more because many passengers have only a couple of pounds to their name,” said Pat Reilly, an ICE spokeswoman. Most people trying to sneak into the U.S. carry only a backpack.

As security agents loaded the plane with the immigrants' belongings, others frisked the passengers, who descended, one by one, from the bus with their hands behind their head. After a body pat, the agents inspected passengers' shoes, checked their mouths, released their arms and sent them onto the plane.

It was the maiden flight for many deportees. Safety procedures appeared on a video in Spanish; there was no movie.

Security agent Victoria Taylor, who is learning Spanish, encouraged passengers to lean seats back “for more comfort.” A flight nurse distributed medication to those who required it, in accordance with directives from detention centers.

Halfway through the flight, security agents handed out box lunches: a bologna sandwich, potato chips, orange juice and a bag of carrots. When asked about the food quality, passenger Veronica Garcia grimaced and shook her head. Another passenger, Judy Novoa, nibbled at the edges of the sandwich and decided, “It's OK.”

Garcia, a repeat customer, said she was just one hour outside Houston when her pickup was intercepted. Novoa, who is 20, said she was arrested on a train near San Antonio. “I was willing to do any dignified job,” she said, explaining that she had paid $5,000 to be smuggled from Guatemala to the U.S.

A handful of passengers had been arrested as they tried to exit the U.S. on their own.

Having built a house in his native village with dollars sent home from Florida over three years, pellet-factory worker Saul Benjamin decided it was time to return to Guatemala. “I wanted to be with my family,” said the father of two.

At the U.S-Mexico border, he planned to hop on a bus to Guatemala. But he said Mexican immigration authorities demanded a $500 payment in lieu of the required transit pass. He couldn't afford the bribe, so Benjamin said the Mexican agents handed him over to U.S. Border Patrol. All told, he said, he got stuck for a month in a detention facility. “If I had deported myself as planned, I would have been home weeks ago,” he said.