Immigration pre-clearance hits a snag

Current infrastructure not sufficient

Immigration pre-clearance for
United States flights will not be achieved in the Cayman Islands until Owen
Roberts International Airport has the necessary infrastructure in place,
according to immigration officials.

“[In respect of] pre-clearance to
the US, they would have to be satisfied that we have the infrastructure down
here, which currently we do not,” said Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Bruce
D. Smith. “Space is a problem.”

Mr. Smith was speaking at a meeting
between the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, local businesses and
representatives of the Department of Immigration on Tuesday.

Harry Lalli, president of the tourism
association, reiterated the private sector body’s wish to resolve the issue.

“Being able to go through US
customs and immigration in Cayman would be one of the biggest helps to the
tourism industry in the sense of connectivity, timing and being able to get
more flights from not just international but national US airports. It would be
a huge thing,” said Mr. Lalli.

He told the meeting that the
association was working very closely with the Department of Tourism who were
lobbying the United States on the issue.

“When that happens and a new
airport comes, hopefully all these problems will be worked through,” he added.

Advanced Passenger Information

In the meantime, Mr. Smith noted
that the introduction of an Advanced Passenger Information system was imminent.
It is an electronic method of gathering passenger information based on airlines
providing immigration with an electronic copy of their manifest ahead of the
flight. This would mean that passengers could be cross-checked against existing
databases of restricted flyers.

“I must say that it’s been looked
at for quite some time, probably five years or so, but we have got very close
and have identified a global service provider for routing data from the
airlines to us,” he said. “We’re about to embark on signing a contract with
this company and are about to introduce legislation; we can’t just put a law in
place, it has to be cleared by the cabinet and go through the house, of
course.”

Mr. Lalli asked Mr. Smith if the
outbound immigration card would be phased out in favour of handing the
responsibility to the airlines, in common with other destinations.

“From a security standpoint we have
to exit every passenger and ensure that every person leaving is not restricted
[in their travel]. A person on our blacklist should not be exiting, due to a
court order, for instance… the risk that we run with that is that the
airlines might not have the knowledge, the infrastructure or the risk
assessment to know what we’re looking for. Simply handing your card to a ticket
agent [does not mean the exit lists can be effectively checked].”

The United States recently
announced increased security measures on its flights. As of 1 November,
airlines will have to provide Secure Flight Passenger Data for 100 per cent of
passengers moving through US airspace to the US Transportation Security
Administration. Passengers must provide specific information 72 hours ahead of
departure to enable match-list processing. Should individuals subsequently
match watch list parameters, they will be subject to secondary screening,
interview or prohibition from boarding on a case-by-case basis.

Peak-time bottlenecks

Mr. Lalli noted that at present
significant bottlenecks at the airport at peak times occurred, and asked
whether this was being addressed.

“In our industry, when a tourist
arrives first impressions are that they like the place but the last impressions
are what matters the most. They may have had the best time [on island] but they
have to stand in that line which is going out of security and all the way down
through the check-in area because there’s only one or two officers working,” he
said.

Chief Immigration Officer Linda
Evans agreed that there was an issue and said that in the past they had been
able to address the situation based on an overtime budget to pay for extra
staff hours.

“A budget no longer exists for
overtime and that causes us to have to restrict the number of persons we can
actually place at the booths,” she said.

Mr. Smith added that human
resources can fall short from time to time and that staffing was an issue that
had presented a challenge.

“We are concerned about putting up
a very good blend of skills at our booths and have injected new blood [in terms
of staff] which is also causing a little bottleneck,” he said. “Because
immigration is the last point one must clear it gets the blame, so to speak, so
we must be conscious of that and provide a professional service to someone who
already comes to us in an irate fashion.”

Mr. Smith added that it takes very
little time to scan the database but the system could provide time challenges
at exit control as attention needed to be spent to risk assessment.

“We also want to look at how we
will actually redefine how exits appear, for instance. How we physically
re-configure the floor plan also has a lot to do with the airports authority
and what they allow us to do. But we are doing something about it and trust me,
every Sunday I shiver at the e-mails I get about persons having to wait in long
lines.

“I made a presentation to the Airports
Operating Committee back in February where we warned the Airports Authority
about this problem, about our budget and about the logistics of this whole
thing,” he said.

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