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Flying to Mexico Not Difficult, As Long as You’re Prepared
Concerns over illegal immigration and narcotics trafficking keep the issue of border security between the United States and Mexico in the news. Given those worries, it may be difficult sometimes to remember that hundreds of general aviation aircraft traverse the border every day, and they do so without incident. Indeed, operators experienced with cross-border flying say those flights are not difficult, provided pilots take the time to do the necessary research and planning.
“Some of the challenges are ones you’d expect,” said Gordon “Gordy” Paige, director of operations for Phoenix, AZ-based Cutter Flight Management Inc. (CFMI), which operates under FAR Part 135. “The language barrier is one. While ATC speaks pretty good English, pilots for the Mexican airlines often speak Spanish. Unless you also speak the language, you won’t have that information [about their movements] and situational awareness.”
Relatively antiquated navigation equipment can be another issue. “Mexico is much more airway-attuned, like the U.S. was 20–25 years ago,” Paige continued. “Instead of direct routes, you should expect to fly airways and make procedure turns. Also, we have limited information available on some of the smaller airports, and standards tend to vary as the comandante of each airport kind of runs his own show. That occasionally makes life a bit more difficult than it needs to be.”
Juan Muniz, a master regulatory services specialist for Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc., noted specific flight permits are required for Part 91 and Part 135 operators. “There’s a one-shot private permit, for a one-time entry into Mexico. They are fairly easy to obtain,“ and allow the operator to remain in the country for six months.
“An annual private permit is also available, which is aircraft specific and good for multiple flights within a calendar year,” Muniz continued. “Both permits require aircraft registration, airworthiness, and insurance information, as well as a letter stating each passenger’s name and association to the aircraft for each flight. Sometimes copies of the pilots’ certificates are needed, as well.” A key difference between a one-time and annual permit is the requirement for annual holders to submit monthly statistical reports to the Direccion General de Aeronautica Civil (DGAC) on flights conducted within the country.
The same permit types are also available for charter operators. An annual permit for charter operations has similar requirements as the annual permit for Part 91 operations, although Muniz notes those permits can be “very hard to obtain,” and may take as long as six months to be approved. Unlike the annual permit for private operations, a charter permit applies to that operator’s entire fleet, though monthly use reports must also be submitted.
There is also the matter of third-party insurance coverage, which is required for all flights within Mexico. “An operator’s insurance provider can coordinate this,” Muniz said, noting most U.S. aviation insurance companies have affiliate offices in Mexico. This process is a bit easier for Part 91 operators, Muniz added, “As of December 15, 2011, they have started accepting worldwide insurance policies that specifically mention they cover Mexican territory.”
In terms of customs requirements, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requires operators to submit complete information for every passenger onboard the aircraft through the Advance Passenger Information System APIS.) “As an agent for the operator, we will collect information such as each passenger’s full name, passport number and expiration date, and place of birth,” explained Eric Ammon, VP of sales and service for Paramount Business Jets, a charter brokerage firm. “We then provide that information to the operator, who submits it to CBP, along with specific details of their flight for APIS processing. If there are any problems, they will let us know [that we should] go back to the customer. As long as no red flags surface, we’re good to go.”
Aircraft flying into Mexico may land at any port of entry for the country, as long as they’re not coming in from Central America, South America, or the Caribbean and Bermuda. “If you are going into Mexico from one of these areas, you must go to Tapachula or Cozumel to clear [customs], and then proceed to your destination,” Muniz said. Similar restrictions are in place for aircraft flying back into the U.S. from Mexico; operators must land at a CBP-specified airport that is able to accept flights from the southern border, unless they have a specific southern border overflight exemption from CBP, which allows them to proceed to their final destination for CBP processing. A full listing of these airports is provided in the CBP Guide for Private Flyers.
Regardless of destination, the safety and security of the pilots, passengers, and aircraft should always be paramount. “Obviously, violence in Mexico has drastically increased in the past couple of years,” Muniz noted. “What we as a service provider suggest is avoiding more troubled spots (Ciudad Juarez, Monterrey, etc.) If you must go to these areas, try to stay in well-populated places and avoid any unnecessary outings, especially during the night.”
Flight crews must keep their aircraft secured and locked at all times, and stay vigilant to the possibility of drugs or stolen items being placed aboard the aircraft. Paramount’s Ammon related the anecdote of one aircraft that had been chartered by a “suspect passenger.” “The guy sped up to the plane in a Corvette and wouldn’t let the pilots know what was inside his duffel bag,” he recalled. “They put the brakes on the flight, and contacted the authorities. It turned out the bag was full of 250 Rolex watches.”