Special Reports

Air fleets fraught with woes

Attorney General Janet Reno presided over a shotgun marriage between two federal air fleets in 1995. The union was supposed to increase efficiency and save money.

Like many forced marriages, however, it’s been anything but blissful — for human trafficking victims, deportees and U.S. taxpayers alike.

The merger combined the air operations of the U.S. Marshals Service, which transported federal prisoners, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which deported illegal immigrants. At the time, both were part of the Justice Department.

It became known as the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, which inspired the 1997 movie “Con-Air.” The merged operation is headquartered in Kansas City, North.

But the relationship began to fall apart in 2003, when Congress moved the immigration service to the new Department of Homeland Security. Then one of the partners took on a new name that would chill any marriage: ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Spats continued and federal auditors in 2006 blamed both parties for irreconcilable differences.

Not only were there safety and security concerns, but the operation also was woefully inefficient. Some of the fleet’s 100-seat passenger jetliners were taking off more than half empty.

Auditors also found that ICE cost the combined operation even more money by failing to help the Marshals Service plan for anticipated passenger loads.

Taxpayers wrote an $87 million check to keep the merged fleet afloat in 2005. ICE spent another $63 million chartering separate flights to keep up with ever-increasing deportations, heightening the tensions.

Indeed, ICE paid as much as $16,000 per seat to deport illegal immigrants on one-way charter flights to Africa and the Middle East, records show.

ICE maintains such expenditures are sometimes required for “high-profile cases” in which deportees refused to board commercial flights. But that’s still five times the cost of a round-trip ticket to London on Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

ICE continues to depend on the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System for many deportation and transfer flights for illegal immigrants. But lengthy delays have caused considerable friction at further costs to taxpayers.

Records show that numerous flights — which run at least $3,500 an hour to operate — have sat idling on the tarmac for hours awaiting ICE deportees. In one incident in 2007, an airliner flew to Georgia to pick up 127 deportees who never arrived.

The whole flight was wasted, one guard noted, because of a “communication problem.”

ICE officials don’t dispute being tardy and acknowledged there were some “avoidable” incidents. It attributed other delays to mechanical and air traffic problems or bad weather.

But ICE said it will continue to use the planes at least through September, at which time it will decide whether to walk away for good after nearly 15 years together.

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