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Private air travel from Mexico to El Paso soars amid pandemic despite travel ban

EL PASO, Texas --For nearly two years land borders between Mexico and the United States have been closed to all non-essential travel. Air borders between the countries, though, have fallen in a grey area - with private planes and chartered flights touching down everyday in El Paso.

"This is a direct route and the closest port of entry for some of these travelers is El Paso, in Chihuahuas' case instead of flying directly to Las Vegas, it will be quicker and faster if they stop here and then continue on their journey, clear customs here," CBP Chief Angel Hernandez said.

More than 8,000 passengers and crew were processed in 2021 according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, which is a sharp increase compared to 5,000 passengers processed in 2020. El Paso often becomes a pit stop for the rich and famous, with Hernandez telling ABC-7 that some flights this fiscal year also brought Mexican nationals seeking the Covid-19 vaccine.

Much like CBP inspects vehicles and foot traffic, officers at the agency inspect planes, passengers and their luggage.

"We do have an x-ray machine, we do have a K9 at our disposal, those are all tools that we use for a layered approach to inspect any kind of conveyance in this particular situation it happens to be private aircraft," said Hernandez.

CBP officers get a clear picture of who they are dealing with when it comes to private planes. Officers receive a roster of who is on board, making it a safer encounter than those at the bridges.

"At the land border, we don't know the person, they come right up to the officer at the land border. Here, we are given a one-hour notification of what the conveyance is and who the passengers are on that particular vessel," Hernandez said.

Hernandez tells ABC-7 that CBP's commitment to secure borders remains the same whether it be land or air.

"That is what our officers do each and every day at the land border, at the rail, at the airport... that is our mission to foster trade through legitimate trade and travel," Hernandez said.

That travel will only go up come Nov. 8 when the restrictions for non-essential travel are lifted at land ports. While CBP didn't have to increase agents when air traffic spiked, officials said they will be shifting agents to the bridges as the tourists flock back.

JC Navarrete

El Paso native JC Navarrete co-anchors ABC-7’s weekend newscasts and reports during the week.

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