Sunday, March 22, 2015

South Bend moves foward with international ambitions

Mike Daigle, executive director at South Bend International Airport, stands Thursday in front of the area where the future general aviation facility and federal inspection station, otherwise known as U.S. customs, will go.

SOUTH BEND -- Only a few minor design details are left to complete.

Then, South Bend International Airport will begin accepting construction bids for its new general aviation and federal inspection facility, otherwise known as border customs.

Plans call for a 12,600-square-foot addition, including an elevated walkway to take international passengers from the plane to the terminal. The former Concourse C and some garages and storage areas will be remodeled to create the rest of the 26,000-square-foot passenger processing station, which will be able to handle 200 international passengers an hour.

If all goes well, construction could begin in late summer and would take about 11 months, said Mike Daigle, executive director at the airport.

"We've been at this now since late last summer," he said. "We didn't want to go so fast that we were causing or making mistakes along the way."

The design process is complicated because it involves the airport, the design firm, and three federal agencies -- the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Every aspect of the space's design and function -- for example, how the custodial staff will get into the station to clean it and which agency will control each security camera -- has to be approved and agreed upon by all parties.

When the airport announced its name change last April, Daigle said that two airlines had already shown interest in potentially offering routes to Mexico and the Bahamas. Since then, he said, a travel and tour package operator also has shown some interest. Once the project is complete, the airport will renew those discussions and examine the potential of other international destinations.

The new general aviation facility is being built to allow personal and corporate aircraft access to the federal inspection station as well.

"Doing business is an around-the-world proposition these days," Daigle said. "We believe if you don't have the ability to do that both commercially and corporately, then it's going to be a problem."

An airport study showed that in a 12-month period about 70 internationally registered aircraft -- mostly from Mexico, Ireland and Canada -- flew into South Bend. Some of those planes could have flown all the way to South Bend without stopping, Daigle said, but had to land somewhere else to go through customs.

"They may have bought gas, picked up lunch or spent the night before coming here," he said. "The community lost those dollars because we didn't have the service available."

And that number doesn't include U.S.-registered aircraft that fly into South Bend, he said, pointing out that the South Bend region has a number of companies that do international business.

Whirlpool Corp., which is headquartered in Benton Harbor, has operations all over the world, including in Italy, China, Mexico and Brazil. Its executives and teams fly out of the country two or three times a month, said Rich Belisle, director of the company's business travel center.

"Having an option closer to home would be nice," he said, explaining that depending on where the company's plane is flying from, it might stop in Alaska or Maine to go through customs. "We see using it routinely just because of its proximity to our major operations."

In the future, the airport also hopes to use the new facility to process international cargo for area business. Currently, Daigle said, cargo from the West Coast gets shipped to Chicago and sits for several days until it clears customs and can be delivered.

"We hope to take it directly from the shipping yard in Chicago and bring it to South Bend," he said. "It will save local companies time and reduce operating costs."

The airport authority expects to receive some federal and state funds for the project, Daigle said. But until the construction bids are awarded, the overall cost and grant eligibility are unknown.

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