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The Brownsville Herald

Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport may become a major transit point for U.S. air cargo headed for Mexico once Brownsville International Air Cargo Inc.’s planned customs facility is up and running.

That’s according to Ricardo Farias Nicolopulos, the company’s president and CEO, who said it will allow southbound air cargo to be cleared by Mexican customs in Brownsville, greatly facilitating trade between the two countries.

The Brownsville operation would follow a dual customs pilot project BIAC plans to develop this year at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in Missouri, Nicolopulos said. The company has already gotten the go-ahead for the project in St. Louis, he said.

That pilot project was originally planned for Brownsville, though U.S. Homeland Security denied to give permission because there is already one dualcustoms pilot project under way in Texas — in Laredo, Nicolopulos said.

St. Louis, meanwhile, has been trying hard in recent years to become a major international air cargo player. No permanent dual-customs facilities currently exist in the United States. 

BIAC’s Brownsville venture would complement a U.S. customs inspection facility to be housed inside a 20,000-square-foot cargo hangar that will soon break ground at the Brownsville airport. 

That hangar will be able to accommodate cargo jets and will also contain chillers so perishable products such as flowers and seafood from south of the border can be inspected without wilting or spoiling. 

Larry Brown, aviation director for the Brownsville airport, said the hangar construction project is “probably a week or two away from going out for bids” and will take 16 months to build. 

BIAC may erect its own building to house Mexican customs or, failing that, use space inside the airport’s new cargo hangar alongside U.S. customs, he said. 

At any rate, the goal is for Brownsville to be a true dual-customs airport, with southbound goods cleared in Brownsville by Mexican authorities to be trucked or flown anywhere in Mexico, and northbound goods from Mexico cleared by U.S. authorities for distribution by ground or air anywhere in the United States. 

Nicolopulos said Brownsville is ideally suited as a dual-customs airport because of its proximity to northeastern Mexico and the rest of Texas — Mexico’s biggest trading partner within Mexico’s biggest trading partner in the world, the United States. 

The point of dual customs is to make shipping goods between the two countries more efficient, cheaper and less time consuming, Nicolopulos said. 

For instance, much of the U.S. air freight destined for Mexico’s northern border region goes all the way to Mexico City to be cleared by Mexican customs before it can be trucked back north for distribution among border states, cities and towns. 

With dual customs, air cargo bound for Mexico could be pre-cleared by Mexican customs in Brownsville or St. Louis, then fly to anywhere in Mexico rather than having to go to Mexico City or a handful of other “port of entry” airports in the country. 

Nicolopulos said the Mexican government has signed off on the Brownsville project. His aim is to create an air-cargo link between Brownsville and St. Louis. 

Brown said a precedent for dual customs was actually established here in 1947, though the experiment was short-lived.

“For whatever reason it only lasted two or three years,” he said. “This was before the advent of computers. There was a lot of paperwork to do.” 

Brown said the new hangar will provide offices for U.S. customs agents so that they’ll no longer have to cross the airport to clear foreign cargo. Customs is currently located on the south end of the airport and cargo operations on the east side. As for the likelihood that Brownsville’s air cargo business will grow as a result of the new customs arrangements, Brown listed a number of reasons he thinks it will (not counting the boost he expects from SpaceX operations). 

For one, Brownsville is the only airport in the Valley with free U.S. customs inspection seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with no appointment necessary — something Brownsville has had since 1929, he said. 

“We very jealously guard that advantage so that we’re in a better position as growth occurs in this area, including industrial growth, that we are able to move those goods by air cargo,” Brown said. 

On top of that, Brownsville has three international bridges within five miles of the airport, the Port of Brownsville nearby, and interstate and rail access, he said. 

“So what do you have here? All the parts necessary to build a truly amazing cargo operation out of this community,” Brown said.

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