NEW IBERIA — Acadiana Regional Airport in New Iberia might one day be a gateway for international trade if federal authorities can be persuaded to waive a rule that prohibits loud, older planes used in South and Central America from flying in the U.S.
Acadiana airport Director Jason Devillier said waiving the rule would make New Iberia an exclusive import-export hub, where merchants could take advantage of trade pacts the U.S. has with Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
And vibrant trade also could open up with other, non-free trade pact countries if planes laden with cargo are allowed to land in New Iberia to unload, or load up American goods and take off for sale in foreign markets.
“This is all about opening up trade, piggy backing on the CAFTA and NAFTA trade agreements,” Devillier said.
He said the areas near the airport and south of New Iberia over which the planes would fly are sparsely populated, so few people would be affected by the noise.
The only U.S. runways that regularly let out-of-compliance older planes land are at Miami Dade Airport, where officials use a system of almost daily waivers granted by the FAA that allow the planes to land and take off in south Florida, Devillier said.
Miami officials “have gotten that down to a science,” he said.
Devillier and others have enlisted help from Louisiana’s congressional delegation in asking the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to waive rules set in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, which forced airlines to phase out louder, older models by 1999. Many of those jets are still flying in other parts of the world.
Devillier said a group of Iberia Parish officials have scheduled a trip to Washington, D.C. in June to speak to federal officials. Sen. David Vitter and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany have been brought in on the efforts.
“We’re working with the airport on options right now as Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization legislation is due to come up on the House floor this September,” Jack Pandol, communications director for Boustany, said in an email Wednesday.
Pandol said that when the group meets again later this year, they’ll put their “heads together to flesh out a legislative strategy for this.”
Currently trade flows to and from all countries in the Caribbean — except for Cuba — and the U.S. Most of that is done via ships and planes loading and unloading in areas called free trade zones. As far as air freight, FedEx and UPS comprise the bulk of the shipments.
What New Iberia seeks, Devillier said, is a niche with smaller shipments coming on older planes from foreign businesses that can’t afford the quieter planes but are still looking to break into the U.S. markets.
“We’re looking for the not-so-massive volume, the smaller guys who are moving stuff from point to point,” he said.
“The key … is a noise exception,” he said. “As we get closer to that reality, that will open the door for us to get with South American and Central American and Caribbean companies to get them here.”
Philippe Gustin, an international trade expert who works at Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Le Centre International de Lafayette, said the effort is promising.
It also has a number of hurdles, Gustin said, such as setting up the trade zone infrastructure at the airport that will entice international companies to use New Iberia.
International air freight trade hubs, such as one in Huntsville, Alabama, have loading and unloading down to a science, and shippers have access to intermodal transportation: rail carriers, big trucks and reliable roads, nearby water ports for shipping, and big cargo jets.
And they’re set up in Free Trade Zones, where import duties that range from 5 percent to 25 percent or more of the value of the shipment, are delayed until the goods are sold. Gustin said establishing such a zone is not easy.
But Gustin sees a niche New Iberia could develop, and says that getting business from small to mid-sized companies in Central and South America is a viable way to start.
“Noise abatement (waiver) is the first step because the smaller companies that use older aircraft will not come here until or unless they have that (FAA) authorization,” he said.