DHL International Slovakia currently receives around 600 shipments a day for distribution throughout the country. But in spite of the fact that they are the biggest shipping company in Slovakia, none of their air shipments arrive directly to Bratislava Airport. Instead, DHL opts for the much larger and more frequented Schwechat International Airport in Vienna.
According to Robert Paterson, General Manager of DHL, Slovakia's tangled customs bureaucracy negates the advantages of flying intoBratislava airport. "Customs clearance in Bratislava takes hours, not minutes, so the time difference between flying to Vienna and then trucking the goods for an hour and a half [to Bratislava], or flying directly into Bratislava is neither here nor there," he said.
Paterson explained that DHL pre-clears its shipments, a process that involves submitting the paperwork to customs officers prior to the arrival of the goods. While these papers are making their slow passage through Slovak customs, he said, goods flown into Schwechat can already be on the road.
On the other hand, Peter Bacigal, Director of Slovak Parcel Service (a UPS affiliate), said that flying directly into Bratislava is more convenient for his shipping company, which is the second largest in Slovakia. "Flying into Bratislava is easier, quicker, and cheaper. The paperwork here is no more time consuming than it is in Vienna."
Paterson explained that DHL uses Schwechat to supply Slovakia because customs regulations make an exclusive route to Slovakia economically unfeasible.
Paterson is not alone in railing against customs barriers. US Ambassador Ralph Johnson, in a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce on October 19 called import certificates "a non-tariff barrier and an open invitation to corruption." US Undersecretary of Commerce Robert Mallett, during a visit to Slovakia in October, also cited customs regulations as one of the principal barriers to American direct investment in Slovakia.
For Paterson, the most frustrating Slovak customs regulation was one requiring certificates to be obtained for any import over $1 in value. The current EU value limit, he said, was 22 ECU (about $28). "In Slovakia, a child's toy valued at $2 must go through the same amount of completed paperwork as that of a $100,000 shipment," Paterson complained.
Paterson argued that a change in policy would benefit the government as well as importers and shipping companies. Under the current value limit policy, half of DHL's 600 shipments require paperwork. "If the level were raised [to EU limits], 60% of the 300 shipments requiring paperwork would come in unhindered," Paterson said. "To my knowledge, Slovakia has the lowest value limit in the world."
In Paterson's estimation, Slovak legislation should phase out the country's antiquarian paperwork style and implement the European uniform system of computerised processing. Equipment such as the Electronic Data Interchanging Link (EDI Link) and ASYCUDA, Paterson said, was already widely in use in Europe, and has been incorporated into the Romanian and Polish customs services with DHL assistance. "Those systems are more efficient," Patterson said. "And we have offered to assist Slovakia with the integration process."
DHL decided in February 1998 to make Budapest its flight centre for eastern Europe. While Bratislava had lost out principally because of the political risk attached to the former government of Premier Vladimír Mečiar, Paterson said, Budapest had won out, among other reasons, "because it had the fewest problems with customs issues."
Bratislava airport officials also added a word of complaint for customs barriers that they feel are driving business away. Ivana Kremnická, the Marketing Manager of Bratislava airport, said that companies' reluctance to use the airport was not based on poor services on offer at the terminal. "If the companies have a problem, it is not a problem with the airport. It must be a problem with customs," she said.
Paterson said that if the changes he proposed were taken, "it would be more efficient to fly directly into Bratislava. Customers would be able to get their shipments an hour and a half sooner."