Customs Waits at Airports Found to Be Three to Five Hours

U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffing shortages are leaving arriving international travelers standing in line for almost five hours at the busiest airports, according to a travel industry report.

Peak wait times reached a high of 4.5 hours at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in December 2012. At Miami in April 2013, the peak wait times were 4.7 hours.

News of these lines may make overseas visitors who could spend as much as $95 billion during the next five years think twice about coming, said Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington-based group representing hotels, rental-car companies, and local convention bureaus.

“The long wait times have travelers telling their friends that they’re going to avoid the U.S.,” Dow said on a conference call today. “The current entry process is handicapping growth in travel. It’s hurting our economic growth.”

Delta Air Lines Inc. Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson in July called customs delays in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago an “embarrassment” compared with comparable cities in Europe, China or Japan.

Delta, which earned 43 percent of its second-quarter mainline passenger revenue on international flights, recently opened a $1.4 billion terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, in part to improve the experience for foreign travelers.

‘A Bottleneck’

The delays are stifling an industry that’s growing six times faster than other export sectors, said Jim Abrahamson, chief executive officer of Interstate Hotels & Resorts Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia, which owns 299 hotels in the U.S. and 50 hotels abroad.

“It’s a bottleneck,” Abrahamson said on the conference call. “It’s creating delays, and it’s creating an unfavorable reputation for us as a country.”

Customs officials have blamed the lines on automatic cuts to the agency’s budget.

The longest peak wait times at three other major international airports, according to agency data analyzed by the travel group, were 3.8 hours at Chicago O’Hare in November 2012, 3.3 hours at Los Angeles International Airport in March 2013, and 2.9 hours at Washington Dulles International Airport in April 2013.

Four-Hour Waits

U.S. Travel said it analyzed limited, nonpublic information provided by Customs on average and peak wait times from June 2012 through May 2013. Average wait times were often less than 30 minutes. The longest ranged from 90 minutes to more than four hours, the group said.

There were 213.1 million long-haul international travelers arriving in the U.S. in 2010, up from 151.7 million in 2000, according to the study. The number is expected to reach 320.8 million in 2020.

Customs needs 3,500 more officers to fill empty lanes and reduce peak wait times by 50 percent, the group said.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned earlier this year that budget cuts would reduce overtime and cause delays at international airports.

The U.S. travel industry grew 7.8 percent in 2012 and foreign-visitor revenue represents 12 percent of U.S. export growth, according to the travel association.

Customs delays were cited in a March study by U.S. Travel as putting $95 billion of economic activity and 518,900 jobs at risk.

O’Hare Improvement

Wait times at O’Hare have been reduced since automated-passport control technology was introduced in July, said Rosemarie Andolino, a commissioner with the Chicago Department of Aviation.

The airport worked with CBP to become the first U.S. airport to adopt the system, which enables U.S. citizens arriving from overseas to enter information at a self-service kiosk and present a printout to Customs agents, Andolino said on the conference call.

Even as the airport added new foreign airlines, wait times have come down, Andolino said. About 60 percent of travelers are processed in 15 minutes and 85 percent wait less than 30 minutes, she said.

Stephanie Malin, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, had no immediate comment on the study.

(Updates with Dow, Abrahamson comments starting in fourth paragraph.)
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