Skift Take

Delta is trying to woo business travelers on lucrative long-haul flights from JFK Terminal 4, but the airline likely won't be publicizing the fact that arriving passengers face the longest peak-wait times of any airport in the country in trying to get through Customs.

Among the largest U.S. airports for international arrivals, JFK Terminal 4 had the longest average daily peak waiting time, a whopping 93 minutes, in May 2013.

If you had arrived in JFK Terminal 4 during the busiest hours from overseas a year earlier, in May 2012, your wait time would have been 24 minutes less, at just under 70 minutes.

After getting off a lengthy flight, anxious to get into the city or onto begin the next stage of your journey, these sorts of protracted and frustrating wait times at Customs are the last thing you desire, and the 34.6% increase in the average daily peak waiting time to 93 minutes in May 2013 shows that the situation has deteriorated.

“There’s been a reduction in manpower and the process isn’t as efficient as it should be,” says Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance,  a business-oriented lobbying group geared to improve conditions at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports.

Using U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, the Global Gateway Alliance compiled rankings (see chart below) of customs wait times at some of the largest airports in the U.S. as of May 2013.

JFK Terminal 4 fared the worst, with the largest average daily peak wait and also the largest average wait time at customs (35.9 minutes) of any airport in the U.S.

The dour numbers at JFK Terminal 4 can’t be welcome news for Delta Air Lines, which has made a huge commitment to the $1.4 billion new terminal. It’s a tough sell in trying to attract business travelers on a slew of flights from Heathrow when they experience an hour-and-a-half wait to navigate through customs at JFK.

In fact, JFK’s average daily peak wait time in May 2013 of 93.8 minutes was 18.7 minutes longer than the average daily peak wait time of 75.1 minutes at runner-up (for longest wait times) Miami North Concourse even though Miami North Concourse processed 1.1 million more passengers than customs officials did at JFK Terminal 4.

Most of the airports on the list below saw significant booth-hour reductions (i.e. staffing cuts) due to sequestration in May 2013, and this contributed to some airports’ spike in average wait times.

Customs and Border Protection officials acknowledge the wait-time problems, according to the New York Daily News, saying the agency is trying to automate travel documents to speed the process, but all of this is of little consolation to frustrated international travelers standing in endless lines trying to get through the airport.

Along with other red tape, It’s a big turn-off to those pondering a visit to the U.S.

Airport peak wait times at customs May 2013 versus May 2012

Airport Average Daily Peak Wait Time May 2013 Change Average Wait Time May 2013 Change Processed Arrivals Change
JFK Terminal 4 93.8 34.6% 35.9 26.6% 3,254,330 5.7%
Miami North Concourse 75.1 23% 30.2 18.6% 4,407,006 1.6%
Miami South Concourse 72.7 18.8% 32.9 18.9% 1,772,050 10.7%
DFW Main Terminal 67 41.4% 25.4 42.2% 1,786,157 13.8%
Chicago O’Hare 63.6 11.5% 23.3 10.1% 2,591,657 -0.6%
Orlando Airside 1 57.2 41.6% 25.5 34% 509,932 50.1%
Orlando Airside 4 56.7 3.3% 35.6 11.1% 423,569 -22.4%
Houston (IAH) 55.3 0.9% 21.9 3.8% 2,524,803 -0.5%
EWR Terminal B 51.3 5.7% 21.3 12.3% 1,786,088 -6.3%
SFO Terminal G 51.1 6.4% 24.8 9.4% 1,504,823 4.9%
LAX Bradley Terminal 47.2 5.7% 21.7 17.9% 2,957,861 -2.8%
Washington Dulles 45.8 17.9% 15.1 23% 1,934,889 0.7%
Las Vegas Terminal 2/3 44.9 14.1% 23.8 14.8% 489,591 6.6%
Atlanta New Terminal (F) 38.8 -25.3% 13.9 -33.4% 1,608,385 1221.3%
Seattle 34.4 26% 13.7 29.8% 780,386 9.8%
Atlanta Old Terminal (E) 22.9 -48% 8.3 -45.5%$ 1,121,153 -54.9%
Atlanta New Terminal (F) 38.8 -25.3% 13.9 -33.4% 1,608,385 1221.3%
Note: Wait times are in minutes
Sources: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Global Gateway Alliance

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Tags: CBP, delta air lines, jfk

Photo credit: Travelers departing and arriving at JFK Terminal 4 better get their walking shoes ready, but that's the least of the problems for arriving international travelers. They have to wait an average of an hour-and-a-half to get through Customs during peak periods. James Long /

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