Imagine the following scenario: You have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a key executive with whom you have been trying to close a major business transaction in the United States. The opportunity was unplanned and the trip is short-notice. It is essential that your new business partner attends the meeting with you.

AvBuyer  |  01st January 2010
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The AvBuyer editorial team includes Matt Harris and Rebecca Applegarth who contribute to a number of...

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Visa Waiver Program
What is it, and why should operators participate?

Imagine the following scenario: You have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a key executive with whom you have been trying to close a major business transaction in the United States. The opportunity was unplanned and the trip is short-notice. It is essential that your new business partner attends the meeting with you.

Because this partner is new, he has never traveled with you before on your corporate aircraft and you are unaware that he does not possess a valid U.S. Visa. Due to the last-minute nature of the trip, your new partner will be forced to fly commercial, because he does not have the lead-time to obtain a Visa and you are not a member of the Visa Waiver Program.

The exact same scenario could occur if an operator is planning on chartering a flight. Unless the charter operator is a signatory carrier, every passenger must have a U.S. visa, otherwise they will not be able to travel on the flight.

Those two scenarios happen all too frequently. To help explain how operators can apply for the Visa Waiver Program and the advantages it provides, we will address some of the most commonly asked questions about the program.

What is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program allows operators who meet the criteria to carry citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a U.S. visa.

These operators become a Signatory Carrier which grants them the same privileges as a Scheduled Commercial airliner to grant immigration status to eligible passengers.

The Visa Waiver contractual agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a one-time application process that does not have to be renewed.

What are the advantages of becoming a Signatory Carrier?
The ability to grant immigration status allowing for up to a 90-day visit to the U.S. can prove invaluable for Private and Commercial operators alike. The process of obtaining a U.S. Visa can be lengthy and will often-times rule out a passenger wanting to travel on a corporate aircraft or charter operation for a short-notice trip.

What types of operators are eligible to participate?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is open to applicants based in the U.S. and abroad. U.S.-based operators can be either Private Non- Revenue, or Commercial in nature. Foreign-based operators must operate commercially or have a U.S.-based subsidiary.

The application process requires either a U.S. Tax I.D. number or current U.S. Customs Bond Authorization to be submitted for consideration.

What countries currently are participating in this program?
There are 36 countries participating in the VWP, including (alphabetically): Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom.

Are passengers required to complete any steps prior to operating?
Effective January 12, 2009, all Visa Waiver Program travelers are required to obtain an electronic system for travel authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a carrier by air or sea to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. The ESTA authorization has taken the place of the I-94W forms previously used for immigration purposes under the Visa Waiver Program.

How can a passenger obtain an ESTA?
Log onto the ESTA Web site at and complete an online application in English. Travelers utilizing the Visa Waiver Program are encouraged to apply early. The Web-based system will prompt you to answer basic biographical and eligibility questions previously requested on the paper I-94W form.

Applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel; however, DHS recommends that applications be submitted no less than 72 hours prior to travel. In most cases, a response is received within seconds. An ESTA remains valid for two years before having to be renewed, but should be updated whenever a passenger changes Carriers during that time.

Does ESTA authorization negate my responsibility to obtain a U.S. Visa?
No! ESTA is a requirement for passengers coming to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program on a Signatory Carrier. An ESTA alone is not a valid travel document when using an operator who is not an approved Signatory Carrier. In this case, a valid U.S. visa would be required for entry.

Passengers arriving into the U.S. without proper travel documents can be penalized, including refusal of entry to the U.S. and deportation.

I can think of two recent scenarios where the confusion between ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program occurred. On the first, we received a call from an operator traveling to Miami from the Cayman Islands. The captain was unsure of documentation requirements for his passengers. We informed him that everyone onboard the aircraft needed U.S. Visas, as the operator was not a signatory carrier. The passengers onboard said that because they had received ESTA approvals they did not need visas, which was incorrect.

We advised the pilot to divert to the Bahamas and not to proceed to Miami without U.S. visas. The passengers disagreed and told the pilot to continue to Miami. Upon arrival Customs and Immigration detained the passengers for more than 12 hours for not having the proper documentation. Finally, after lengthy interviews and being fined, the passengers were allowed entry into the U.S.

Another recent example I am aware of occurred when a major professional Italian soccer team arrived in the U.S. on a chartered aircraft that was not a Signatory Carrier. Fifty seven of the 63 foreign national passengers did not have U.S. visas. Consequently, the operator was fined. The entire process took many hours to process as each passenger had to have Customs create temporary documentation.

The team was in fact very lucky because they very easily could have been refused access to the U.S. and been sent back to their departure location.

Can a passenger who entered the U.S. via the Visa Waiver Program, leave the U.S. and retain status during their 90-day period?
Yes, passengers who arrive on a Signatory Carrier are approved to take side-trips during their 90-day period and retain status in the US. Trips to Canada, Mexico, and the adjacent islands are allowed under this provision.

The Code of Federal Regulations at 8 CFR 286.1(a) defines "adjacent islands" to include Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Marie- Galante, Martinique, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

What happens to a visitor if, for some reason, an emergency prevents them from departing the U.S. within the period of authorized stay? If an emergency prevents a person from leaving, the district director having jurisdiction over the place of the alien's temporary stay may grant a period of satisfactory departure, not to exceed 30 days.

Who should the client contact if they would like more information on the Visa Waiver Program?
Operators should contact their Trip Support Service provider for details on the application process and availability to facilitate the contractual agreement. Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc.’s Regulatory Services Team has years of experience in f
acilitation of contracts and daily operational support for Visa Waiver Program participants.


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