Saturday, October 18, 2008

One Airline That Isn't Loosing Passengers....ICE Air

While U.S. airlines downsize and scrimp on amenities, one carrier is offering its passengers leather seats, ample legroom and free food. But frequent fliers probably don't want a ticket on what may be the fastest growing "airline" serving Central America.

This carrier is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for finding and deporting undocumented immigrants. A crackdown on illegal immigration has led to a spike in deportations and the creation of a de facto airline to send the deportees home.

The air service, called Repatriate by air-traffic controllers, is known simply as ICE Air to agency employees. Its planes have headrests emblazoned with ICE's name and seal. In-flight service is polite.

In all, the U.S. government deports people to more than 190 countries. Besides Mexico, ICE flew home 76,102 illegal immigrants in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 72,187 last year and 50,222 two years ago.

At 8 a.m. two buses and two vans packed with immigrants pulled up alongside the plane. ICE agent Roland Pastramo boarded each vehicle, clutching a clipboard with passenger names. "Good morning," he said loudly in Spanish, and the deportees returned the greeting. "Your flying time to Guatemala City will be 2.5 hours ... . Watch your step. Good luck."

Each passenger is entitled to 40 pounds of luggage, which is carefully labeled. The tag on a big, black duffel bag loaded onto the flight to Guatemala listed the following contents: microwave, toys, VCR and an electric saw. "We don't charge them for bringing more because many passengers have only a couple of pounds to their name," said Pat Reilly, an ICE spokeswoman. Most people trying to sneak into the U.S. carry only a backpack.

While security agents loaded the plane with the immigrants' belongings, others frisked the passengers, who descended, one by one, from the bus with their hands behind their heads. After a body pat, the agents inspected the passengers' shoes, checked their mouths, released their arms and sent them on to the plane.

It was the maiden flight for many of the deportees. Safety procedures appeared on a video in Spanish; there was no movie.

Security agent Victoria Taylor, who is learning Spanish, encouraged passengers to lean their seats back "for more comfort." A flight nurse (there is always one on board) distributed medication to those who required it, in accordance with directives from detention centers.

Halfway through the flight, security agents handed out box lunches: a bologna sandwich, potato chips, orange juice and a bag of carrots. When asked about the food quality, passenger Veronica Garcia grimaced and shook her head. Another passenger, Judy Novoa, nibbled at the edges of the sandwich and decided, "It's OK."

The passengers, who sat quietly or napped, said they had come to the U.S. hoping to work in Maryland, Massachusetts and Mississippi, among other places.

Homecomings can still be sweet, despite the circumstances. When the plane touched down in Guatemala, many passengers applauded. Exiting the airplane, some made the sign of the cross or kissed the ground.

A Guatemalan foreign-ministry official declared, "Welcome home," and informed the arrivals that they had free access to a phone, a money-changing service and vans to the central bus station. "If you used a different name in the U.S., please give us your real name," the official told the crowd. "There is no problem."

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