What is an appropriate waiting time for clearing immigration at an international airport? It’s an interesting question. There is clearly a trade off (given fixed staffing levels) between the thoroughness of interviewing arriving passengers and the speed at which they move through the system. However, it is not clear just what the objective is. From the position of the government agency doing the screening (in the US that is Customs and Boarder Protection which is part of the Department of Homeland Security), safety is paramount although it is probably combined with a bit of political butt covering. Let’s face it, if someone gets into the country on fake documents and then gets caught shoplifting — let alone a violent crime — there will be hell to pay.
From the position of those who depend on foreign travelers for a living, however, there should be a service component to properly welcome visitors and their open wallets. Maybe we shouldn’t aim for a check-in-at-the-Four-Seasons experience, but we should be able to deliver a Marriott level greeting. At least that seems to be the argument made in a recent New York Times article (A Long Wait Gets Longer, Aug 23).
The U.S. Travel Association and major hotel companies have been lobbying the government to ease the burden of getting a travel visa, while the airlines would like to see a more welcoming arrival process for passengers already tired from a long flight.
“We care because international travel is a key growth area for U.S. airlines,” Mr. Lott said. “You may have a great flight from Europe, but when you arrive at a U.S. airport and end up standing in line for an hour and a half, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth for the whole travel experience.”
Just how long travelers are spending in line at customs is difficult to pin down, partly because of how United States Customs and Border Protection tracks wait times. According to the agency, the average waiting time at customs was nearly 21 minutes in the March-to-May quarter of this year, up from 17 minutes in the same quarter in 2009.
But airline representatives are frustrated with that metric because it averages wait times at 23 airports, when the longest lines tend to occur at major international gateways like New York, Newark, Miami and Los Angeles. The agency’s average also does not capture the fact that maximum waiting times can exceed an hour at busy times of the day, with far shorter lines when few international flights land.
For instance, at Newark airport, the maximum waiting time this past March through May was routinely more than an hour, with a peak of 110 minutes from 3 to 4 p.m.
Their recommendation is that CBP must add more agents.
But what is happening here from a purely operational point of view?
First, the article undersells just what information CBP makes available. Check out their little Airport Wait Times tool. It gives you two ways of seeing the information on waits at a particular airport. You can either see waits for specific date ranges (e.g., around Christmas) or by month and day of week. Here’s what you get for O’Hare on Thursdays in August.
Note that staffing peaks at 48. If you do a similar query for JFK in New York, you will find there are hours when CBP has more than 130 booths open. However, there is an obvious problem relative to O’Hare. In Chicago, all international flights come into one terminal, and CBP gets to benefit from the economies of scale in queueing systems. At JFK, CBP’s agent are spread across five different terminals. There are similar issues at Newark and Miami. So one interpretation here is that CBP is being criticized when they are forced to operate in a less than ideal configuration because of how airports were designed.
There is another problem with how this system operates. Arrivals are very peaked. Again look at the table. The number of passengers at 11AM to Noon is about 1/6th the number at 2 to 3P. Nature doesn’t force things to be that way. That is all about how airlines schedule flights. I would guess that this is all driven by most passengers leaving Europe in the late morning since getting to Heathrow at 6:00AM or landing at Chicago at 10:00PM is a tough sell. Still, airlines could help this problem greatly by tweaking their schedules so CBP sees a more uniform flow over the day.
The article does discuss one band-aid solution to the long waits: Allowing airlines to identify those with short connection times and then giving those passengers priority access to CBP. From a queuing perspective, this is an excellent proposal since it directs available capacity to those who most need quick service. However, it also creates a risk since airlines will be tempted to find some way to sell this service. This is effectively what they do with security screening at airports by giving priority to “special” customer. I have benefited from these systems but it always strikes me as wrong. Fundamentally, it comes down to a private firm benefiting by selling access to a government service paid for by everyone. It would be a shame if that also happened to immigration processing.