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Airport to Get Updated Customs Area

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Times Staff Writer

Clearing the way for international flights at Lindbergh Field, the San Diego Unified Port District on Friday agreed to expand the airport’s customs facility within 90 days so that it meets federal requirements for drug searches and baggage inspection.

Gabriel Gallina, assistant port director, said the cost of expanding the facility in the airport’s East Terminal is still unknown, but architects for the Port District and federal inspection agencies will meet next week.

The decision by the Port District, which runs the airport, comes little more than a month after it learned that U.S. Customs officials had refused to assign agents to Lindbergh to handle returning San Diego passengers on British Airways flights from London’s Gatwick Airport via Los Angeles, a daily service slated to begin Wednesday.

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British Airways had hoped to save its San Diego customers time by allowing them to stay on the plane during the Los Angeles stopover, sending them on to Lindbergh to go through customs.

Plan Scuttled

But regional customs officials vetoed that plan after deciding that Lindbergh’s facility, which has not been in use since 1981, is inadequate for drug and baggage inspection.

Officials ruled that San Diego passengers must be inspected in Los Angeles, then reboard the plane for the short trip home--a procedure that might add as much as two hours to the flight.

Earlier this month, airport manager Bud McDonald said the structural modifications demanded by customs officials for the estimated 50 passengers a day coming in from London would not be worth it.

The impasse caused consternation for local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego).

“Phoenix has international facilities for international flights,” said Lowery in a recent interview. “Yet San Diego doesn’t?

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“San Diego is rapidly becoming the sixth-largest city in the United States,” he said. “It is the second-largest city on the West Coast and is strategically located on the Pacific Rim as well. We should be a big-league city with a big-league airport with international status.”

‘It’s an Embarrassment’

San Diego City Councilman Ron Roberts, whose district includes Lindbergh, also said recently that he was “surprised” to find out that the customs facility was lacking.

“It doesn’t make sense, and it’s an embarrassment,” he said.

The impasse melted Friday after port officials met two hours with representatives from U.S. Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Agriculture.

Customs officials agreed that, for now, they will expedite the San Diego leg of the British Airways flight by allowing all San Diego passengers to be the first through customs in Los Angeles, said Gallina.

Meanwhile, Gallina said the Port District will pay for the expansion of Lindbergh’s customs facility.

The modifications will include installation of a luggage belt to carry suitcases from the airplane to the terminal. Customs officials have said luggage belts are necessary to allow trained dogs to jump over and sniff a continuous stream of suitcases for drugs.

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The Lindbergh customs area now has a stationary rack for stacking luggage, making it hard for the dogs to sniff individual bags. Customs also wants expanded search rooms and holding cells, as well as a “sterile” area on the Tarmac to keep aircraft from international flights separated from domestic planes and wants to restructure the inspection stations for a smoother traffic flow.

A computer system linking Lindbergh to law enforcement agencies for passenger security checks also must be installed.

Installation of the system will take six months--twice as long as for the other improvements, said Gallina. Customs officials agreed Friday not to wait for the computers to be installed but to staff the facility as soon as it is complete, he added.

A spokeswoman for British Airways Friday declined comment about the Lindbergh improvements until an official announcement is made.

Customs officials could not be reached for comment.

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