Long Waits at Airports Taking Their Toll

International passengers waiting to go through customs and immigration at Miami International Airport have found themselves waiting in lines that are so long that airport workers started handing out water to the tired travelers in an attempt to make their wait a little more bearable. The airport has also installed televisions to keep people entertained, this seems to be working to lighten the mood but it only smoothes over the problem rather than fixing it altogether.

These lengthy waits, approaching five hours in Miami earlier this year, are not only annoying to the passengers, but they could wind up costing the U.S. billions of dollars in lost revenue, according to a travel industry group.

In a report that was released last 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 lost jobs. The reason for this loss is due to money not being spent during passengers’ wait in line, an estimated loss of $416 million. This is added to an anticipated loss of $11.8 billion in potential spending lost because travelers may decide against coming to the U.S. because the entry process takes so long.

The report suggested several changes, including:

  • Hiring 3,500 more U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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.

President and CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association, Roger Dow, said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Customs and Border Protection officers work hard to ensure a safe and smooth travel experience for all travelers.

“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 regarding 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 took over JFK’s place 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.

More relief from the long waits is on its 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 second.

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