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Border Crossings

May 18, 2009

With spring weather showing signs of finally arriving in the northeast it soon will be time to remove the land gear from my Cub, install the floats and migrate from PA to our family place in the Georgian Bay – the Canadian side of Lake Huron. I’ve been observing this ritual for nearly forty years. But with new TSA and Customs and Border Protection regulations coming into effect, It made me realize just how complicated the procedure has become.

When I first began flying into Canada all that was required was one phone call to a FSS, to file a flight plan and request Customs at an AOE. The magic word was ADCUS – Advise Customs. But, as of May 18th this one stop shopping will come to an end.

Actually it began a few years ago when Canada privatized it’s air services. Instead of the Canadian MOT (their FAA and now called Transport Canada) suddenly you had to deal with NavCanada (which is much like our FSSs).  And the customs requests were handled by Canpass, an entirely separate entity. To facilitate matters Canpass asked that you register in advance and pay a nominal fee.  NavCanada uses another tactic. Lots of user fees.  (Mind you CBP also wants to sell you a decal for your aircraft, which went from $25. to $27.50 this year.)

For the past few years I have been calling Canpass the night before a flight into Canadian airspace and then file a flight plan with one of our now privatized FSSs the morning of my trip. Once I figure out an ETA I call Canpass again – two hours before my arrival – and update my information. Kinda like filing two flight plans. I also bought a second cellphone, because you can’t rely on anyone to talk to the other guy anymore.

It’s better to be a bit late than too early, but the Customs people on either side of the border expect you to hit a 15 min window.  In truth I seldom see anyone from Canadian Customs.  Usually a phone call on landing does it all.  Oh, there are occasional spot checks and if you miss your ETA by more than twenty minutes, there’s a point at which they have to check you over.  But the Canadians don’t wear guns, they have neat blue uniforms and for the most part are characteristically polite.  Call me old fashioned – I like that sort of treatment.  But don’t become complacent.  US Customs – sorry Customs and Border Protection – always wants to see you when you reenter the States and since 9/11 their demeanor has become a lot more serious.

All in all I have not found these procedures to be a burden.  What does concern me are new Homeland Security / Customs and Border Protection regulations taking affect this month that now make it mandatory to file an electonic flight plan before you leave the US and again before you reenter. Until now there were no requirements for outbound flights and on returning to the States you filled out and phoned in Form 178 (Private Aircraft Enforcement System Arrival Report) two hours before you showed up at a Customs Point. It was all pretty straight forward and once you got someone to answer the phone it wasn’t a difficult procedure.

So who came up with the bright idea of making us ask permission to leave the United States? And to do everything on a computer via the internet? No one who flies a seaplane that’s for sure.  And why don’t we let the Canadians decide who does or does not enter their country? S omehow I don’t think it is because Homeland Security has developed an altruistic streak and what might be relatively easy for a commercial operation leaving from and returning to a good sized airport may prove unworkable for a lone pilot flying a straight float plane and coming out of a remote lake with no electricity and no internet connection.  Like me for example.

But I too want to feel safe and not stand in the way of progress so I registered with the eAPISsystem and received my user name and password. Hopefully, submitting a request for a flight to Canada may not be all that difficult and I can do it from the comfort of my home.  What will happen when I try to make contact with these people at the end of summer – perhaps from a marina in Ontario with satellite connections to the internet – that is the $64 question.  Or $10,000 if I screw up.

It didn’t do any good protesting these new requirements when we had the chance and I’m sure no one is listening to my suggestions now.  But rather than instigate these draconian measures all CBP had to do was add one more column to Form 178 – for pilot and passenger passport information. That’s what they weren’t getting – until you landed – and feel they need to know now.  But, at this point, my question is academic.

Believe it or not, it is dealing witha five hundred mile VFR flight across upper PA, western NY and two Great Lakes – each with their own weather systems that is usually uppermost in my mind and sometimes it can make details like my exact time of arrival at Toronto’s City Centre Airport and SPB sporting at best. Especially when ground fog keeps you on the ground in PA most of the morning, thunderstorms form by the time you get to the edge of Lake Ontario and an inversion over the steel mills at Hamilton puts the visibility down around your ankles.  But, take my advice, don’t attempt to explain this to a government employee.

So… if you are leaving the carefully controlled confines of the USA in your airplane this summer, register with eAPIS, buy your CBP decal, pack your passport, your cell phone and your plastic pilot’s license (withEnglish Proficient printed on it).  Buy every Sectional you might need for a ramp check, file your flight plans, make up a check list with all the phone numbers and passwords you will need and take along your laptop. You don’t have a laptop? You must be kidding!

But, I saved the good news until last. Transport Canada has just postponed the requirement to have a properly registered 406 ELTbolted to your airplane, in order to fly in their airspace. Trouble is no one is listening on 121.5 any more so it might be worth investing in a (non-approved) SPOT or PLB until we find out which 406 models will be accepted. Because, it’s all just around the next corner.

Happy flying and have a wonderful summer.

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