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MacArthur Airport expands international flight services

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent demonstrates

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent demonstrates some of the new security tools at Islip MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma on Feb. 6, 2014. MacArthur Airport can now process international private flights with the introduction of a customs area. Credit: Ed Betz

Attention, foreign celebrities and international jet-setters: Long Island MacArthur Airport is ready for you.

The airport is now able to process customs for private international flights bearing passengers who are not American citizens, expanding a program that was only for U.S. citizens flying in from abroad.

On Dec. 23, the airport opened a temporary facility for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to check the passports and biometrics of arriving international passengers on general aviation flights -- private aircraft carrying no more than 20 people.

The Town of Islip, which runs MacArthur, is building a $1 million permanent facility to open in about eight months. The Federal Aviation Authority is expected to reimburse the town for the cost of the customs facility. Town officials said the new capacity will generate an additional $100,000 in annual revenue from flight fees, and raise the airport's profile, especially among international visitors to East End destinations, as well as New York City.

"We might be the little brother to the big airports, but now the little brother has some weight," Islip Town Councilman John Cochrane said during a visit to the facility. "We're just waiting for the next U.S. Open. This place will go crazy."

The upgrade means that if someone like musician and philanthropist Bono, en route to a party in East Hampton, takes a private charter flight from Europe to New York, he can drop in at MacArthur for customs processing instead of flying into Kennedy Airport, or to the region's other facility for private international flights, New Jersey's Teterboro Airport.

While Kennedy processed 13.8 million passengers at its customs facility last year, MacArthur receives about 200 to 300 international private flights a year, said Salvatore Ingrassia, the assistant port director of trade for Customs and Border Protection. Until December, only U.S. passengers could be processed at Islip.

The MacArthur customs officers are part of the crew based at Kennedy. Upon a private flight's approach to MacArthur, the pilots radio in to alert customs officials to send officers to MacArthur to process the passengers. At the customs area, non-U.S. citizens are fingerprinted and photographed, then cross-referenced with visa information. The officers also can run background checks on criminal history.

"On their way in, they've already transmitted all the passengers' pedigree information, so we have a good idea who is arriving here before they arrive here," said Craig Sanko, the chief of enforcement for passenger operations at Kennedy Airport.

Islip officials hope that the international passenger flow will eventually be heavy enough to justify having customs officers posted permanently at the airport. About 25 international flights have been processed since the customs facility opened, and town officials expect the traffic to pick up around holidays and major events.

The push to bring the biometrics system to MacArthur started about two years ago, Cochrane said. With help from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the town applied to the customs and border patrol agency for the expanded capability. Town officials said they hope to next start accepting international commercial and cargo flights.

"Securing the capacity for international flights will be a game-changer for MacArthur, which -- despite some recent bumps in the road -- has tremendous potential as an economic engine on Long Island," Schumer said in a statement. "Customs and Border Protection, at our request, has moved incredibly quickly in approving and staffing MacArthur's facility, and now it is up to USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to do their part so commercial flights from around the globe can land here."


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