BY HANNAH SAMPSON
Lines for international passengers waiting to go through customs and immigration at Miami International Airport have been so lengthy that airport workers have handed out water to tired travelers. The airport has installed televisions to keep people entertained and is working to quicken the process.
Those waits — approaching a maximum of five hours in Miami earlier this year — are not just annoying to passengers, a travel-industry group said Wednesday. The delays could also cost the U.S. billions of dollars.
In a report released Wednesday, the U.S. Travel Association argued that long lines and delays to enter the country could cost the economy more than $12 billion a year and thousands of jobs. That’s both because of money not being spent during the wait in line — $416 million — as well as $11.8 billion in potential spending lost because travelers decided against coming to the U.S. because of the entry process.
The report called for several changes, including:
• Hiring 3,500 more U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
• Arranging schedules to make sure CBP officers are working at the busiest times.
• Adding technology to reduce the burden on officers.
• Reducing peak wait times by half and processing every traveler in 30 minutes or less.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association, said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Customs and Border Protection officers work hard.
“They’re just under-resourced,” Dow said. “It’s like having one cashier at Costco during the holidays.”
While the U.S. has set a goal of 100 million international visitors annually by 2021, a lack of resources to adequately staff entry points could hurt that effort, the group said. Last year, 67 million international travelers visited the country; of those, 6.8 million came to Miami-Dade.
“The long process and the long wait times have travelers telling their friends that they’re going to avoid the U.S.,” Dow said.
The association examined data provided by CBP on wait times between June 2012 and May 2013 at five major international gateways: Miami, Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles, New York’s JFK, and Los Angeles. According to the report, more than 40,000 passengers at MIA waited longer than two hours to be processed during that stretch; at JFK, the number was 180,000.
Miami edged out JFK for the longest peak wait time: 4.68 hours in April 2013, just beating the 4.48 hours at JFK in December 2012.
Ken Pyatt, Miami-Dade Aviation Department deputy director of operations, said wait times have already improved by 5-25 percent since August 2012.
“I think we’ve taken some effective self-help measures that have improved the process,” he said.
Those include opening a dedicated security checkpoint for travelers with connecting flights who needed to be re-screened after going through customs and immigration; adding staffers to direct passengers to available CBP officers; and studying the most efficient ways to organize lines. CBP also helped by automating a form to streamline the arrival process, securing more overtime in the summer and scheduling shifts more efficiently, Pyatt said.
More relief is on the way. Miami International Airport has spent $3.5 million on 36 self-service kiosks that will allow U.S. citizens and Canadians traveling internationally to scan their passports rather than going to an inspector. The kiosks, which are expected to be installed by the Thanksgiving travel rush, will generate a receipt that an officer must read, but Pyatt said the actual interaction between passenger and officer will be reduced from an average of two minutes to about 15 seconds.
Miami also has the option to buy 36 more kiosks next year.
Pyatt said that after Chicago O’Hare installed similar machines, that airport saw more than 30 percent improvement in efficiency.
“Our operation is a little different, but we’re optimistic that we will be in that range,” he said.
Miami International Airport also was approved for a pilot program that would allow the airport to pay for overtime for CBP officers. The airport is still negotiating details with Customs and Border Protection. While MIA has identified up to $6 million for that program, Pyatt said he is confident the actual amount will be much lower thanks to self-service kiosks.
Pyatt said the airport is working hard — and dedicating money from the operating budget — to be proactive about addressing the long waits.
“We don’t want to give the impression that we’re immune to this and it’s not our problem,” he said. “We can’t physically hire and put customs inspectors in place. But we’re doing everything possible to work with them.”