WASHINGTON—Con Air is becoming big business, thanks to illegal immigrants and criminal aliens.
And this is one flight you definitely want to miss.
Federal officials flew 95,876 incarcerated illegal immigrants and criminal aliens around the country in 2005, a 28 percent increase since 2000. Those foreign nationals now account for nearly half of all the passengers flown on the highly guarded federal flights, a new audit found, and tougher border security efforts will boost numbers even higher.
Unfortunately, the auditors warn, the flights could outpace federal planning. Officials haven't been looking far enough into the future, leaving the program vulnerable to nasty surprises.
"(Officials) could be caught off-guard by changes in demand and customers," the Justice Department Office of Inspector General auditors caution in the new report.
Popularized as "Con Air" in a Hollywood movie of the same name, the prisoner flights are coordinated by the U.S. Marshals Service through a Kansas City, Mo., office, and carried a total of 181,948 prisoners in 2005.
The passengers shuttle among about 40 domestic and international cities, and they come in many different stripes.
Some are being extradited, or transported to their new federal prison homes. Many illegal immigrants or criminal aliens are heading to deportation centers, and then to their home countries.
Since 1995, the number of undocumented immigrants and criminal aliens flown under guard has grown 826 percent. Most are now being returned to Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
"Now we're at 115,000 (prisoners transported) and counting this year," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters at a briefing in August. "It will be a record year for us with the total number of movements."
The Marshals Service officials who run the flight program said they can simply lease more planes and hire more guards as needed. The Office of Inspector General is skeptical.
"Leasing additional planes on an emergency basis is not only reactive," the auditors cautioned, "but is also more expensive compared to longer-term aircraft leases."
Buying six new Boeing 737s would cost $540 million over 30 years. Leasing six of the same aircraft would cost $840 million over the same period. But because of year-to-year budgeting, the lease appears cheaper in the short term.
Marshals Service spokeswoman Nikki Credic said Monday that officials found the new 118-page audit "helpful" and indicated that they will follow up on the key recommendations, including improving long-term planning.
"Major changes need to be implemented to enhance the program," Credic said.
The Marshals Service owns three airplanes and leases six more for the flights. Even this doesn't handle all the traffic. Immigration authorities in 2005 had to charter airplanes or buy individual tickets to handle an additional 62,017 illegal immigrant and criminal alien passengers—at a cost of $63 million.
Costs pile up in other ways. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must pay for round-trip deportation flights to foreign countries even though the return flight is usually empty.
Domestic flights likewise can take off with too many empty seats. Every weekday afternoon, for instance, a plane leaves Mesa, Ariz., to pick up undocumented immigrants and criminal aliens in California and other Western states. Two out of three seats are empty on these flights, and auditors suggest flying less often but with fuller planes.
Immigration officials explained they didn't have enough lead time to use the same scheduling system as other federal agencies.
The auditors kept secret how many guards are supposed to be on each plane run by what's formally called the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System. They cautioned, though, that the ratio of prisoners to guards was too high in 13 percent of the flights studied. Hangar guards are also frequently shorthanded, the auditors found.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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