The Summer of Long Customs Waits
By Scott McCartney, WSJ, June 12, 2013
Three-hour lines at U.S. Customs checkpoints have caused so many travelers to miss connections that Miami International Airport set aside an auditorium filled with cots as an overnight shelter. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, chairs are on standby, ready to be rushed in for extra-long immigration-hall waits.
And at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, wait times can routinely be more than twice as long as last year in some terminals.
Officials are warning of extreme delays gaining entry to the U.S. this summer after nightmare delays of three hours or longer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoints this spring, in what are usually slower travel months. Over the past year, the wait to enter the country at airports—which was already often a slog, especially for non-U.S. citizens—has increased dramatically.
"It’s a major problem," said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at Airlines for America, the air carriers’ Washington, D.C.-based trade group. "People get very, very frustrated when they spend seven or nine or even as long as 17 hours on a flight and then wait another two to three hours in line. People get really unhappy."
American Airlines, the largest carrier at Miami, has had to rearrange its flight schedule to increase connection time between flights because of the longer lines. The airport is regularly supplying bottled water to passengers stuck in long lines and has asked CBP for permission to install a concession stand in immigration halls, said airport spokesman Greg Chin.
In May, the longest waits topped two hours at many checkpoints, according to CBP data tracking the time from when a flight arrives until the last passenger gets processed. At Terminal 4 at JFK, the drop-off depot for 31 airlines, the longest wait in May was 177 minutes in the 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. hour, up from 113 minutes in May 2012. The Delta terminal at JFK saw the average number of lanes open fall dramatically to 12 from 19 in May at the 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. peak hour. The longest wait last month there, 123 minutes, was up 151% from that of May 2012, according to the CBP.
The data show JFK and Miami as the worst offenders, but problems have also surfaced in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth, among others.
Some airports are offering to take the drastic step of paying a CBP agent overtime, even though it is the government’s responsibility, not theirs.
CBP acknowledges that wait times have increased. It says the problem is the agency doesn’t have enough officers. Over the past three years, the number of people arriving at U.S. airports from abroad is up 12%, to record levels of more than 100 million a year, a senior CBP official said. Yet the number of agents at airports authorized by Congress essentially is unchanged, the CBP said.
Airports and airlines say long lines got longer this spring with the sequestration, the series of federal budget cuts that went into effect March 1. Several airports such as LAX and Miami complain CBP isn’t paying overtime for extra officers at peak hours. CBP says it is saving up its overtime budget for this summer, and has been able to manage sequestration cuts by saving money elsewhere.
Every airline ticket inbound from abroad includes $17.50 in fees for CBP. As international travel increases, the fees could pay for more officers.
Frequent travelers fume about the wait times. “For non-U.S. citizens, it’s about the worst in the world now, to the best of my knowledge,” said Chris Rodwell, a world traveler from the United Kingdom who, in the past month, has had bad waits in Chicago and JFK, both over 70 minutes. Mr. Rodwell has changed his travel plans recently to avoid Miami.
One Saturday in March, photos of a sea of people packed into an immigration hall were posted on Twitter and other social media sites. Miami TV station WTVJ quoted passengers saying people were yelling and screaming. Some were dehydrated and hungry. One man pounded on a glass wall, yelling incessantly.
CBP says one challenge making matters worse is that airlines have expanded the hours at which international flights arrive, so early mornings or late nights when few passengers needed to be cleared at Customs have now become busier times. That leaves fewer agents for afternoon peak periods. CBP has asked Congress for 3,500 additional officers, many of whom would go to international airports, the agency said.
Some nights going back to last summer, 1,000 international passengers to Miami have been left stranded because of missed connections. Airlines aren’t responsible for providing hotel rooms, so many passengers must sleep at the airport. An auditorium used for meetings and training sessions is now filled with cots, Mr. Chin said.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport has started a “One Stop” program that lets passengers with only carry-on bags bypass customs processing, reducing the wait for others. And airlines at several airports have set up a system to give passengers with tight connections special yellow or orange cards as they deplane that let them use a priority lane at Customs.
The best antidote for U.S. citizens, even infrequent travelers, is to enroll in CBP’s trusted traveler program called Global Entry. You have to apply online with some personal information for a criminal-background check. Once preliminarily cleared, you can schedule an interview at a CBP office where you get asked about your travel history and whether you’ve ever been arrested, and are fingerprinted. You pay $100 for five years membership.
Once in, you bypass long lines and march straight to a kiosk that reads your passport and scans your fingerprints. After answering customs declaration questions on the touch screen, the machine prints a receipt and you’re on your way. And Global Entry also gets you into the Transportation Security Administration’s “Pre-Check” expedited screening program.
Global Entry applications have soared. More than 60,000 people applied in May, CBP said, up from 15,000 a month at the end of 2012. About 1.7 million travelers are now enrolled, and an average 4% to 6% of arriving passengers now are using Global Entry.
More automation is coming. At the U.S. airport checkpoint in Vancouver, Canada, Automated Passport Control kiosks let U.S. citizens scan their passport in, enter their flight information and answer customs declaration questions. That speeds up lines since officers don’t need to key in the information.
Chicago will begin using the kiosks before the end of summer, and CBP says other airports will come online with kiosks later this year.