Customs inspections are slated to return to the Dona Ana County International Jetport in November, allowing the airport to live up to the “international” in its name and likely boosting air traffic.
The small airport anchoring New Mexico’s Santa Teresa industrial development — rechristened an “international jetport” last December — used to serve as a touchdown point for the wealthy owners of private jets and corporate commuters traveling between the United States and Mexico.
That was until U.S. Customs and Border Protection shut down inspections in September 2011, choking off international traffic that had been the airport’s bread and butter. The agency issued new requirements, and the airport’s mobile customs trailer didn’t make the grade.
Operators say international traffic is poised to return after the Nov. 7 opening of a new, $800,000 customs facility paid for by the state and county.
“We are certainly hoping a lot of that traffic comes back,” airport Manager Bill Provance said.
For years, Santa Teresa was a preferred stopover for executives flying between a company’s U.S. headquarters and its factories in Mexico, for jet owners on their way back from beachside villas south of the border, and for a handful of local cross-border travelers with the means to maintain a personal jet fleet.
Unlike commercial airlines, private jets rarely have permission to “overfly” in the U.S. after traveling abroad and must stop at a border checkpoint much like cars and trucks do at ports of entry. “There are a lot of people that have airplanes based at Santa Teresa that have to go clear customs at El Paso,” Provance said, referring to the airport just over the state line in Texas. “They will be glad when it reopens.”
Alan Russell, chief executive of Tecma Group of Companies, which provides services in the U.S. and Mexico, stores his fleet of aircraft at his own hangar at Santa Teresa. An avid pilot, he frequently flies clients in a twin-engine Cess-na up and down the border.
Since Customs and Border Patrol closed up shop at Santa Teresa, he said he has had to stop at the El Paso International Airport to clear customs before flying five minutes over the Franklin Mountains to the Santa Teresa airport.
“Stops in airplanes are expensive and time-consuming,” he said.
The Santa Teresa airport has grown in recent years despite the disappearance of customs, Provance said. There were 88 aircraft based at the airport in 2007, compared with 154 today.
That’s thanks to the robust growth in the surrounding industrial park, as well as New Mexico’s favorable tax on private aircraft compared to Texas, said Tyler Francis, owner of Francis Aviation, which sells fuel and hangar space at the Santa Teresa airport. New Mexico charges a penny per pound in tax, while Texas charges 3 percent of a jet’s value.