Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) is paying for the automated-passport machines that are coming to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in an effort to cut wait times that can reach five hours for travelers from abroad.
JFK’s status as the busiest U.S. entry point for international passengers makes it a particular concern, according to the Global Gateway Alliance, a trade organization advocating for improvements at New York’s airports. The group welcomed U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s disclosure Sept. 25 that the airport would get automated passport control.
“The operator had to step up and front the money for this,” Stephen Sigmund, the group’s executive director, said in an interview. “They just couldn’t wait any longer. The situation has been intolerable for a long time.”
Customs officials should also increase staffing, create rapid-response teams to address trouble spots and make more information about delays available to the public, Sigmund said.
The automated-passport system may reduce waiting times to clear customs by as much as 40 percent, Kevin McAleenan, acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in an interview. The system is already in place at three U.S. and Canadian airports, McAleenan said.
“The results have been very impressive,” McAleenan said. “It’s going to have a significant facilitation impact.”
Staffing shortages that customs officials blame on automatic U.S. budget cuts have extended waits to as long as five hours during peak times at the busiest airports, including JFK, the U.S. Travel Association said in a report Sept. 18.
Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson, whose company recently opened a $1.4 billion international terminal at JFK, has called the delays an “embarrassment” that discourages tourism and threatens U.S. economic growth.
The customs agency is also negotiating with three U.S. airports for reimbursement of overtime costs, which would keep more processing lanes open, McAleenan said. The facilities are Miami International, Dallas/Fort Worth International and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, McAleenan said.
The system coming to JFK lets passengers use kiosks to answer questions instead of submitting paper declaration cards on arrival. The kiosks scan passport information so customs officers don’t have to examine the paper document.
Interview times by officers have been cut in half to 30 seconds on average for U.S. citizens, McAleenan said.
At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the first U.S. facility to test the new system, wait times came down even as the international carriers were added, Rosemarie Andolino, a commissioner with the city’s Aviation Department, said Sept. 18. About 60 percent of travelers are processed in 15 minutes and 85 percent wait less than 30 minutes, she said.
Missed connections at O’Hare have been reduced 69 percent, McAleenan said.
Only U.S. citizens can use automated passport control at O’Hare. At airfields serving Vancouver and Montreal, Canadian and U.S. citizens can use the system.
Customs plans to bring the automated passport system to Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston Intercontinental, Orlando International in Florida and Toronto Pearson International Airport, McAleenan said.
All of the airports receiving the passport system are doing so with public-private partnerships, said Stephanie Malin, a customs spokeswoman. The agency isn’t funding any of the kiosks, she said. Funding sources vary by facility.
The agency has struggled to keep pace with the growth of international arrivals without money to hire more customs officers. A record 100 million international air passengers arrived in the U.S. last year.
Congress hasn’t acted on an administration request for an additional 3,500 officers to process airline passengers, McAleenan said.
International air carriers often schedule flights at the same times during peak hours, McAleenan said. Some other arrivals occur when airports aren’t fully staffed.
“We have the challenge of trying to stretch all of the hours of service requested, as well as massing forces during peak periods,” McAleenan said. “Overtime is one way to help bridge those gaps.”
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