By Rich Pollack
Since it opened just about a year ago, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Boca Raton has had close to 7,000 aircraft passengers come through its doors.
They have come on almost 1,500 planes and arrived after departing from 40 countries, including Italy, Germany and England.
They have brought with them warm-weather clothing and sometimes pets. They’ve also brought trash — lots of it.
Between May 31, 2018, and May 20 this year, 2.35 tons of trash collected from aircraft arriving from overseas has been burned to ash in a special incinerator installed at the Boca Raton Airport. The trash includes everything left over on the plane, especially food or foreign material that could bring disease or blight.
The statistics help document the need that customs facility advocates had been talking about for years.
“The usage has exceeded our expectation,” said Airport Authority Executive Director Clara Bennett.
Bennett said the number of passengers using the facility is close to double what had been predicted in a feasibility study done to justify the construction of the $3 million, 4,200-square-foot facility.
Customs officials say that the station in Boca Raton sees an average of four or five flights on weekdays with 10 to 15 flights on Saturdays and Sundays combined.
Sundays are the busiest day of the week, according to Boca Raton Airport records, accounting for about 25 percent of all arriving international flights needing to clear customs.
The overall number of planes coming into customs increases significantly, however, when President Donald Trump is at Mar-a-Lago, since Palm Beach International Airport is closed to international general aviation aircraft while temporary flight restrictions are in effect.
The busiest seven-day period of the year, for example, was Feb. 12-19, which included Presidents Day and a presidential visit. During that time, 83 flights and 406 passengers passed through customs in Boca Raton.
The week also included the busiest day of the year — Feb. 15, the Friday before Presidents Day, with 27 flights and 114 passengers traveling through customs.
In general, the customs facility is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and operates from only 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., but pilots can request after-hours clearing for an additional fee.
Overall, inspectors at the facility have not seen any problem with passengers attempting to bring contraband into the country.
“Traffic at the Boca Raton Airport tends to be 99 percent law-abiding travelers,” said Jennifer Connors, U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director at the Port of Palm Beach, which includes the facility at the Boca Raton Airport. “So far, it’s been a reasonably easy operation to manage.”
Connors said the newness of the facility and the relatively light traffic make the Boca center a desirable location for customs inspectors. “It’s a nice place to work,” she said.
Pilots and passengers — especially those coming from the Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos — are also finding it a convenient place to clear customs.
In the past, planes coming into Boca Raton from out of the country would likely clear customs either at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport — which has one of the busiest general aviation customs centers in the country — or at Palm Beach International.
That would often mean an additional landing and fuel-consuming takeoff.
With the customs facility in Boca, that step is eliminated.
Bennett points to the case of a pilot with a plane at the Boca airport who flies to the islands frequently. With customs in Boca, he is able to save about an hour flight time and about $100 in fuel costs.
The dollar savings are negated a bit by a fee the Boca airport charges to help offset the costs to build, operate, maintain and staff the customs facility.
The fee, based on the size of the aircraft, ranges from $50 for a single-engine plane to $425 for a large jet.
In addition to aviation traffic, the customs facility is available to boats coming in from overseas. In the first year, 34 vessels and 77 passengers have cleared in Boca Raton.
Bennett said that the airport’s goal in requesting a customs facility was always to provide a valuable and convenient amenity for the customers.
“That has in fact been truly borne out,” she said.