Regular travel to Canada will soon be easier for islanders. A roughly two-hour ferry ride could now be a 10-minute trip by air. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are now based at the Friday Harbor Airport for about two to four hours a day to inspect travelers arriving into the country.
“I think there is a great future for tourists to come and for islanders to go out and see other places without it being such a burden,” said Friday Harbor Airport Manager Stuart Hansen.
On June 1, a ribbon-cutting kicked off U.S. CBP officers scheduled shifts. One U.S. CBP officer will be stationed at the site at a time, though exact times have not been set.
No regular flights have been scheduled, either, though three airlines have expressed interest, said Hansen. One is based in Friday Harbor, one in Oregon and one in Canada. Henry Emson, owner of Northstar Air Tours in Canada, hopes to have approval to fly in the U.S. by June 15. Emson plans to schedule two flights in the morning and two in the evening between Sidney, B.C. and Friday Harbor. One flight in the morning and one in the evening will also hit Eastsound on Orcas.
“It seems crazy that we’re only 10 minutes away and there’s not a lot of interaction,” said Emson about San Juan Island and Canada.
His planes seat up to nine passengers and he advises travelers landing in Sydney to take a $5 bus to Victoria, which is about 30 minutes away. Flights will range from $49 to $79, each way. That’s a couple hundred dollars cheaper than a one-way chartered flight. A roundtrip ferry ride from Friday Harbor to Sydney, B.C. is $129.75. When the direct ferry isn’t running, the long way around is 143 miles, taking around eight hours with two separate ferry rides.
Currently, only chartered flights can travel to and from Canada since there are no officials to inspect passengers. According to Hansen, when pilots near the Friday Harbor airport, they call the local U.S. CBP office and request an officer to meet them at the airport. Sometimes, they can make it, and other times, pilots are forced to head to nearby airports like Bellingham’s.
“There will be a dedicated person here at certain times,” said Hansen. “It’ll be a guarantee that officers will be here, and now it’s not.”
The Port of Friday Harbor marina is the only regular location for U.S. CBP officers as of now. Shifts are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the rest of year.
A 235-square-foot area to clear customs was built last February at the airport, after about two months of construction. According to Interim Port Director Phyllis Johnson, Port of Friday Harbor and U.S. CBP officials agreed to upgrade the terminal last spring.
Hansen explained that the project’s budget is $35,000, but the total is currently under that. San Juan County will pay 2/3 and the Town of Friday Harbor will pay 1/3. Construction included adding two walls, security cameras, a door, window, bench, and table.