• CBP chief gives travel ‘ramp up’ boost
• ‘Tough number’ after ‘19’s record 1.4m
• LPIA pre-clearance staffing boosted
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
US pre-clearance at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) expects to be processing 70-75 percent of pre-COVID’s record passenger volumes “by the end of summer”, a top official revealed yesterday.
Jeff Mara, area port director for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), conceded to Tribune Business this was “a tough number” to hit given the 1.4m departures processed in the last full pre-pandemic year but said it was based on passenger demand data provided by the airlines.
The 16 percent year-over-year rise in outbound travellers heading to the US in the 12 months to end-September 2019 was the highest growth rate for any US pre-clearance station, and Mr Mara said CBP has redeployed officers from similar facilities in Canada and Ireland to Nassau with effect from June 6 to cope with the projected “ramp up” in tourism demand.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, recently voiced concern that there was insufficient manpower at LPIA’s US pre-clearance facility to handle the anticipated surge in passenger numbers, which will be inflated further - especially at weekends - by several thousand departing cruise passengers as a result of Royal Caribbean and Crystal Cruises’ Nassau home porting.
The minister expressed fears that delays in pre-clearance processing could negatively impact the guest experience and final impressions of The Bahamas, adding that the government had raised the matter with the US Embassy “and made them aware of this problem. It doesn’t seem as if they can respond that readily to it”.
Mr Mara, though, reassured that CBP’s Nassau pre-clearance station is “fully prepared” to handle the pent-up travel demand from Bahamians and residents, as well as returning US citizens and others, after bolstering its ranks with officers temporarily re-deployed from other countries.
Once the peak summer travel period ends, he explained that CBP was likely to return Nassau-based officers who had been assigned elsewhere after COVID-19 hit and the agency’s budget was impacted by the plunge in user fee income stemming from the global aviation shutdown.
Mr Mara also said the US had suggested to the Government that it could enter into a “reimbursable services agreement” where The Bahamas could cover the costs of deploying extra CBP officers to LPIA, beyond those already budgeted and covered by the agency, if it wanted to ensure even faster passenger processing.
In what will likely boost hopes for a swifter, and stronger, post-COVID tourism recovery than many have anticipated, Mr Mara told Tribune Business: “CBP is prepared to handle the increase in passenger travel for the summer and beyond.
“Our seat recovery numbers, we’ve estimated by the end of this summer, will be at 70-75 percent of pre-COVID levels,” he disclosed. “That’s a tough number. The October 2018 to September 2019 fiscal year, we saw a significant increase in passenger volume. We did over 1.4m passengers departing for the US, a 16 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
“We at CBP, we were the highest rate of growth in travel throughout pre-clearance..... Our projections are for a recovery to 70-75 percent of the numbers were were doing.” If that forecast is achieved, it would place The Bahamas on track to achieve a rate of around 1m US departures on an annual basis by the time the summer travel season ends in September.
Mr Mara said CBP’s projections were based on bookings, forecast load factors and other data provided by the airlines that service The Bahamas from the US. He added that the agency had met with the commercial aviation sector back in Spring “to get a good handle on their projections for the summer season”.
Acknowledging COVID-19’s devastating impact on the Bahamian tourism industry, the main driver of employment and economic activity, he added: “We stand ready to facilitate travel and the return of the tourism sector.....
“Let there be no mistake about it: Operational planning is a year-round effort. At the micro level, we take into account each and every day, but on a macro level we look at travel moving forward.”
Addressing Mr D’Aguilar’s concerns, Mr Mara said that “based on the steady recovery of the airlines we secured officers from other locations with pre-clearance field officers, Canada and Ireland, to come here to The Bahamas and help us through this busy summer season.
“They’ve been on the ground from June 6. There’s a short-term and a long-term solution to this. The longer term is to return the staff we deployed back to CBP. We went down by a small number of the staff. A good portion of them will be returned. It just takes some time to get them back on the ground.”
Mr Mara declined to give numbers on how many temporary officers have been assigned to Nassau, along with a figure for how many were redeployed from The Bahamas last year, plus current manning levels at LPIA.
He explained that CBP, like most government agencies throughout the world, was challenged by the loss of user fee revenue when international travel ground to a halt for much of 2020, forcing it to reduce staffing levels at LPIA.
With Canada and Ireland less open to air traffic, Mr Mara added that it made sense to redeploy those officers to Nassau on a temporary basis before full-time officers returned after the summer season was finished.
Should the Government still have concerns about LPIA pre-clearance manpower, he said it has the ability to follow a route already selected by Canada, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the form of signing a “reimbursable services agreement” with the US government.
This would see a “host country” such as The Bahamas cover the costs incurred by CBP beyond the latter’s budget for deploying extra officers to facilitate the more rapid processing of US-bound passengers.
Describing it as a bilateral agreement that has to be negotiated, Mr Mara said: “There’s an opportunity in the long-term, as we see the growth in the travel sector in The Bahamas, and as we move forward to larger and larger numbers needing to be processed coming into the Bahamas.”
He added that CBP was “certainly ready to go” for Royal Caribbean’s first weekend of home porting in The Bahamas, adding that it had “worked hard in advance” with both the cruise line and LPIA’s operator, the Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD), to meet the demand sparked by departing home port passengers.
And Mr Mara said CBP intends to re-establish the pre-clearance presence in Freeport that was lost to Hurricane Dorian, although the timing and details depend on Grand Bahama International Airport’s rebuilding.
“Certainly we stand by ready to work together with the stakeholder community in Grand Bahama to return the pre-clearance facility back to Grand Bahama,” he said. “We’re all aware that the facility suffered catastrophic damage, if you will, and we stand by ready to engage and begin planning sessions.
“Ultimately, it’s our thought that we will return to Grand Bahama. We wait to hear what that will turn out to be, and who that turns out to be, and certainly look forward to working with them. It really comes down to the facility. The facility is the issue.
“We need a facility that meets the standard to return everybody back to. That takes design and construction. The light at the end of the tunnel is hopefully the return of our employees back to Grand Bahama.”
That is a task that will be handed to the operating partner/developer/financier that the Government ultimately selects to reconstruct Grand Bahama International Airport, for which a Request for Proposal (RFP) is being prepared.