WASHINGTON — In a move to shorten the time spent processing imported apparel, the U.S. Customs Service has increased, to 19 from four, the number of ports where shipments can be cleared in advance of an ocean carrier or air cargo plane’s arrival.

The prearrival clearance will allow Customs to check an apparel shipment against U.S. limits placed annually on large-volume apparel exporting countries. The in-transit quota check means cargo could be released within 24 hours of arrival, instead of two to five days that apparel imports now typically face, according to importers.

The expanded preclearance program goes into effect immediately, provided that importers first apply to Customs for participation. Cargo can only be precleared if a given apparel quota is less than 85 percent filled.

Since 1998, preclearance of apparel cargo has been tested at the ports of Los Angeles and New York/Newark, N.J., as well as at the Los Angeles and JFK international airports.

Connie Chancey, Customs chief of quota enforcement and administration, said that by 2003, the agency hopes to expand the program further to include all ports of entry, amounting to more than 300, and to cover imported textiles.

With the addition of 15 ports and airports, the preclearance program now covers most of the high-volume points of entry for apparel, Chancey said, although she couldn’t say what percentage of apparel imports have yet to be covered.

Apparel importers have been eager to see the preclearance program expanded.

“This is already the customary practice for everyone else,” said Wendy Wieland, director of trade services at The Kellwood Co., referring to imports not governed by quota limits.

Wieland said apparel importers had suggested, after Sept. 11, that adding ports to the preclearance program would help smooth cargo processing, while fulfilling Customs officials’ desire to be alerted in advance to the contents of incoming shipments for security purposes.

Such a preclearance program appears to be a step toward a more comprehensive cargo disclosure program that Customs officials are expected to unveil early next year. Among many things, agency officials are weighing how best to secure cargo by requiring importers to demonstrate that their foreign factories and ports of embarkation are free of terrorist threats.

Cecilia Castellanos, vice president of import administration with Customs broker firm Western Overseas Corp., based in Los Angeles, said the expanded apparel import preclearance program “helps quite a bit” in processing cargo. She said shipments under the program in Los Angeles has meant cargo can be released within a day, provided containers aren’t opened for inspections.

The ports of entry that have been added to the program are: Port of Atlanta, Boston seaport/Logan Airport, Buffalo-Niagara Falls, Champlain-Rouses Point, Port of Chicago, Port of Columbus, Port of Memphis, Miami seaport/Miami International Airport, Port of Newport/Portland, Ore., Port of Puget Sound/Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and San Francisco seaport/San Francisco International Airport.”NEWS>”122701″>”1201″>”2001″>”WOMENS>

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