AOPA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have developed a close working relationship in the years since the leaders of the organizations sat down to discuss some controversial searches of general aviation aircraft.
Following on that progress, AOPA initiated its cross-border initiative to help make general aviation pilots’ international flights less complicated and more streamlined.
Change is coming fast to the cross-border experience. For example, a smartphone app that combines a new facial recognition feature and passport scanning capability could soon transform how GA pilots clear customs—including “planeside” service in many cases, CBP officials said in the April 16 discussion of program advances with AOPA.
Colleen M. Manaher, executive director of planning, program analysis and evaluation, of the Office of Field Operations, and Alex Smarsch, a manager of CBP’s Mobile Program, talked travel technology with Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs and advocacy, at CBP headquarters in Washington, D.C.
CBP processes approximately 115,000 international GA operations annually and is dedicating resources to making that process more efficient. One program that is already a year into trial operations at two seaplane bases in Minnesota—Crane Lake and Ely—has “gone over wonderfully,” Manaher said.
Seaplanes were the focus because that program, Remote Offsite Arrival-Mobile (ROAM), was developed for processing occupants of small boats arriving at remote locations. Officials realized they could also process seaplane arrivals in the area.
The app, which users can download from Google Play, allows pilots arriving at the “sanctioned locations” to provide their travel documentation electronically—saving customs the task of doing it manually—and hold a face-to-face conversation with a CBP officer. If all is in order, the officer “can go ahead and greenlight their arrival,” Smarsch said.
Coon noted that AOPA is eager to see the app widely implemented across the northern border and urged CBP to continue its rollout. Manaher said CBP’s timeline calls for the agency to “master the small boat population” before expanding ROAM’s aviation function.
On another promising front, CBP likes the prospects for a proprietary app called Mobile Primary to offer the agency new flexibility to conduct primary inspections of arriving GA flights in a variety of locations from congested airports to remote strips.
“For general aviation this is going to be a secure, very efficient process for the pilots,” Manaher said.
Mobile Primary frees a traveler from having to meet with CBP “in a fixed location” by outfitting officers with a smartphone app that can download all the information needed to verify a traveler’s status, Smarsch said.
“And they can do that in as little as 15 seconds,” he said.
Mobile Primary was tested in October 2018 at Centennial Airport in Denver, where officers used it planeside to verify travel documents. According to CBP, using the app “eliminated the need for all travelers to go to the terminal unless additional inspection was necessary.”
Officers also were able to resolve Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) discrepancies, “expediting the process for all involved.”
Now CBP is “ramping up” for “a very strategic deployment schedule over the next six months and try to touch as many general aviation locations across the country and put this technology in our officers’ hands,” Smarsch said.
Of all the technological changes moving forward, one innovation CBP expects to be a truly “transformative agent for us” is facial-recognition technology to be included in the next phase of Mobile Primary, replacing the need to swipe a passport to read its electronically coded information, Manaher said.
The facial recognition component of CBP’s Traveler Verification Service will arrive in two phases: One slated to begin in April that uses a mobile camera to take photos; the second phase to use more advanced facial recognition technology to scan travelers’ faces, CBP said.
By building a cloud-based “gallery of faces” pulled from government databases, and using it to match identifications, “the administrative processing of documents and paper could all go away as all of that could be done in the background,” Manaher said, venturing to predict that in three to seven years a traveler “won’t recognize current processing as we know it, that’s how transformative we think this is.”
CBP has received commitments from 24 major commercial airports and most major cruise lines to work on adapting to a “biometric process.”
What about privacy? CBP addressed that issue in a statement: “We employ strong technical security safeguards and limit the amount of personally identifiable information used in the transaction. CBP will delete photographs of U.S. citizens collected through this process within 12 hours. For certain non-U.S. citizens, the photograph may be retained in secure [Department of Homeland Security] systems and used as a biometric confirmation of departure from the United States as required by law. If a U.S. citizen is uncomfortable having their live photo matched to our general aviation galleries, they can elect to opt out of the process and present their traveler documents to the inspecting CBP officer.”
Among other initiatives to streamline CBP interactions is an app under development in the private sector that would simplify filing electronic APIS manifests that must be submitted prior to cross-border flights. The app has been approved by CBP and is expected to enter testing in June, said Nobuyo Sakata, AOPA director of aviation security. “AOPA is excited about this collaborative effort as the app helps general aviation pilots not only file eAPIS manifests securely and accurately, but also helps them comply with customs requirements.”
Coon told the CBP officials that AOPA members appreciate the cooperative relationship that has developed over the years between AOPA and CBP, and he reiterated AOPA’s strong interest in developing a risk-based approach to customs processes for GA pilots modeled on the Trusted Traveler programs the agency already employs to expedite some international travel.
Manaher agreed in principle but noted that CBP must still figure out how an aircraft inspection would be accomplished under those circumstances—prompting Coon to reply that “it’s something to move toward, and maybe technology will get us there.”