Port Director Paul Bisswurm inspects a plane at Batten International Airport's new $1.1 million, state-of-the-art U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry. The new center offers new security capabilities as well as comfort.
RACINE — More international flights are coming into Batten International Airport than ever these days, and when they land, passengers find a fully modernized U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry.
Racine is one of a handful of Wisconsin airports that have customs intake capabilities. Batten has had that function available for years, but previously under fairly primitive conditions.
Baggage examinations were performed in aircraft cabins or even on the ground. At night, passports were checked by flashlight at plane-side, said William Braun, service port director for the port of Milwaukee (which also includes the Racine and Green Bay ports).
But in May, a new, $1.1 million state-of-the-art customs port opened at Batten, a private airport. It provides physical security, computer equipment for checking passengers against law enforcement databases, comfort and weather control, has a passport reader, fingerprint scanner, interview and search rooms, and an all-steel holding cell.
“Due to the new fingerprint and passport scanners and computer equipment, we can handle more-complex flights,” Batten Airport Manager David Mann said.
In the past, Braun said, a flight where fingerprinting was deemed necessary simply wouldn’t have been allowed to land at Batten, 3239 N. Green Bay Road. “So that’s an opportunity to see increased flights,” he said.
Port Director Paul Bisswurm said Batten’s new customs port of entry is the new template for general-aviation, which is all aviation except commercial airlines and military. It can take flights with up to 20 passengers aboard.
To fund the project, Mann acquired a Federal Aviation Administration grant of about $500,000, some state money, and Batten’s shareholders are supplying the rest.
Batten is a designated congestion-relieving airport for Milwaukee and Chicago, and the FAA wanted more aircraft to use it, Mann said.
He said the first airport to build a modern customs facility would be “the go-to place for the future. If Kenosha had built (it) first, Customs may have gone there and left us without.”
To facilitate customs clearances, in 2012 U.S. Customs moved its local office from the Downtown post office to Batten. It placed a full-time customs agent, Bisswurm, at Batten; a second comes in from Milwaukee as needed. Those actions led to an increase in international flights from about a dozen a year to 100 to 150 a year. And this year’s numbers are ahead of last year’s, Bisswurm said.
Mann said Batten’s increase in international flights, its lack of security capabilities and a heightened interest by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in general-aviation airports were all reasons for the new center.
Another type of international flight at Batten is transit aviation: long-range flights, for example from Canada or Europe, that stop to refuel and clear customs on their way farther west. Consequently, Batten does a lot of marketing from Denver west, Bisswurm and Mann said.
It’s cheaper and faster to clear customs and refuel at Batten than at Mitchell Airport, Mann and Braun said.
However, every international aircraft that comes into Batten is a money-maker for the airport. Mann said a fuel refill, at today’s aviation fuel price, can range from about $300 to about $9,000. Aircraft might also need oil and other supplies, and they need catering, Batten makes a little profit there, too.
The new customs center gives internationally flying aircraft another reason to make a stop in Racine.
Bisswurm said, “It just gives the general-aviation community a better option of coming into an airport that caters to smaller aircraft.”