It’s been a while since we have written about long delays to clear immigration control at airports. But as this eye candy from the Wall Street Journal makes clear, it is time to revisit the topic (The Summer of Long Customs Waits, Jun 12).
In a nutshell, lines are getting longer and longer. (Also, don’t fly through Miami. Check out this video.)
So what is going on?
As the article tells it, this is largely a capacity problem. International air travel is up, but Customs and Border Protection staffing ain’t. Further, the sequester isn’t helping.
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.
The question then is what would make things better. The obvious answer is more capacity. That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean more bodies. There is a role for automation here. For example, the Global Entry program allows US citizens and green card holders to clear immigration via a kiosk. If more US citizens check themselves in, then CBP officers can be shifted to the non-citizen line.
Other forms of automation are on the way.
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.
This is a nice idea as well. It doesn’t completely take US citizen out of the queue the way Global Entry does, but “pre-processing” before reaching the front of the line reduces the amount of work an officer needs to do. Throughput should then increase.
Interestingly, one change that should have made things better has actually made things worse.
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.
If airline were willing to shift flight arrivals so there was a smoother flow of passengers over the day, life should be easier for the CBP and waits should be shorter for arriving passengers. There are a couple of possibilities for why this is not happening. One is that airlines have shifted schedules but CBP has not. If CBP has not adjusted to the new arrival patterns, that means waits would start creeping up earlier and more people could be seeing very long waits. The other is that airline haven’t shifted flights but added flights. That would just exacerbate the CBP’s capacity deficit.