Monroe airport adding Customs and Border Protection service

After six years of planning and $1.5 million spent, Monroe’s airport is nearly ready to debut a Customs and Border Protection service that will allow international flights to land in the city.

Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport will be the first general aviation facility in the Carolinas to have the service, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said, and one of only a few dozen across the country.

Typically, such offerings have been the domain of major commercial airports like Charlotte Douglas International. General aviation airports do not have scheduled commercial flights, but are used by charter services, private planes, corporate jets, flight schools and others.

Monroe and Union County officials say they’re hopeful the service at the city-owned airport will bolster local businesses, including a growing aerospace industry, and provide an enticement for companies considering relocating to the area.

The operation will start before the year’s end, possibly by mid-November, Airport Manager Peter Cevallos said. To house it, the city built a 2,500-square-foot Customs and Border Protection building next to the main terminal.

The goal is to have at least two or three international flights a week coming into Monroe, Cevallos said, most likely corporate jets.

Customs and border patrol officers will typically only handle flights arriving at the airport, Cevallos said. It will be up to customers to schedule the service with the agency.

“It’s a great thing to have,” Cevallos said. “When people think about this airport, they’ll think about the business traffic.”

A rare addition

Federal officers will not regularly staff the facility at Monroe. Rather, they will make the 50-minute drive from Charlotte as needed to process people and cargo for entry into the country.

Monroe will pay the agency about $162,000 to cover the first year’s staffing, and that price will go down in subsequent years to about $140,000.

To cover those costs, the city will charge user fees. Those rates are still being worked out.

Adding Customs and Border Protection services to an airport such as Monroe’s will put the city in rare company.

In the past five years, Monroe is only the fifth user-fee airport nationwide to reach a deal with the customs and border patrol agency for service as-needed, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Evanitsky said. The other airports are in Florida, Texas, California and Montana, and were approved for staffing between 2010 and 2012. There are 51 user-fee airports in the U.S., including Monroe’s, federal records show.

Serving a need

Monroe began its push for a customs operation in 2008 after hearing from companies interested in flying directly to the city without first having to stop at another airport to clear customs, said Chris Platé. He started the project while working as Monroe’s aviation director and now is executive director of Monroe-Union County Economic Development.

The move came as Monroe’s aerospace industry continued to grow. There now are 20 aerospace companies within a 7-mile radius of Monroe, the largest geographic concentration in the Carolinas, Platé said.

Among the companies awaiting the new airport service is Cyril Bath Co., which is among at least 17 international businesses in Union County.

Located next to the Monroe airport, Cyril Bath designs and makes machines used to form airplane skin. It has a sister company in France.

“We have customers all over the world, and now we’ll be able to fly directly into Monroe. That’s a good thing for us,” said Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Michael Zimmer. He expects company-related flights from Montreal and France could use the service.

Platé expects other industries with international clients will use the service as well, including in the precision manufacturing and medical device fields.

And businesses in the Charlotte region may want to use the service to avoid dealing with Charlotte Douglas, Monroe Mayor Bobby Kilgore said. That airport is the sixth-busiest in North America, with 558,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

Monroe’s airport has about 56,100 takeoffs and landings a year, making it the second-busiest regional airport in the area behind Concord’s 61,177 total.

About four years ago, Concord looked at bringing customs officials to Concord Regional Airport as needed but decided the move did not make sense financially at the time, City Manager Brian Hiatt said.

In December, the airport added low-cost carrier Allegiant Air and moved from being a general aviation airport to a commercial airport. While the city is not actively pursuing Customs and Border Protection service now, Hiatt said Concord would still consider the option as its needs grow.

A peek inside

Cevallos, the airport manager, provided the Observer with a tour last week of the nearly completed building. The walls still smelled of new paint, and blueprints sat on one of the tables.

When service begins, Customs and Border Protection officers will board an international flight after it lands for an inspection and to explain how the customs process works, Cevallos said. People would then head directly to the new building.

As passengers walk inside, they will pass under a blue sign that reads, “Welcome to the United States.”

Part of the building’s costs went to installing equipment to federal standards, Cevallos said. Metal tables are bolted to the ground in an interview room. The 300-pound, bomb-proof doors are equipped with magnetic locks.

And behind the drywall, Cevallos said, is aluminum mesh that is used for bomb protection.

Cevallos is eager to unwrap the new building, which the city expects to turn over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection in a couple of weeks.

“It sets us (apart) from the other general aviation airports in the area,” he said.

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