New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport will get an automated-passport system that may reduce waiting times to clear customs by as much as 40 percent, a senior U.S. official said.

The system, now in place at three U.S. and Canadian airports, is part of a strategy to reduce hours-long waits in line for arriving international travelers, Kevin McAleenan, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s acting deputy commissioner, said in an interview.

“The results have been very impressive,” McAleenan said. “It’s going to have a significant facilitation impact.”

Staffing shortages that customs officials blame on automatic U.S. budget cuts have extended waits to as long as five hours during peak times at the busiest airports, including JFK, the U.S. Travel Association said in a report Sept. 18.

Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson, whose company recently opened a $1.4 billion international terminal at JFK, has called the delays an “embarrassment” that discourages tourism and threaten U.S. economic growth.

Customs is also negotiating with three U.S. airports to reimburse the agency for overtime costs, which would allow more airport lanes to stay open, McAleenan said. The airports are Miami International, Dallas/Fort Worth International and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, McAleenan said.

As the airport with the most international arrivals in the U.S., JFK has been a particular concern, according to the Global Gateway Alliance, a trade group advocating for improvements at New York’s airports, which welcomed the CBP announcement on automated passport control.

‘Top Priority’

Customs officials should also increase staffing, create rapid-response teams to address trouble spots and make more information about delays available to the public, said Joseph Sitt, chairman of the alliance.

“JFK should be the top priority for fixes to the horrendous wait times that millions of travelers are facing,” Sitt said.

The system coming to JFK allows passengers to use kiosks to answer questions instead of filling out paper declaration cards on arrival. The kiosks scan passport information so customs officers don’t have to examine the paper document.

Interview times by officers have been reduced in half, from an average of a minute to 30 seconds for U.S. citizens, McAleenan said.

O’Hare Test

At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the first U.S. facility to test the new system, wait times came down even as the airport added foreign airlines, Rosemarie Andolino, a commissioner with the Chicago Department of Aviation, said Sept. 18. About 60 percent of travelers are processed in 15 minutes and 85 percent wait less than 30 minutes, she said.

Missed connections at O’Hare have been reduced 69 percent, McAleenan said.

Only U.S. citizens can use automated passport control in Chicago. At Vancouver and Montreal, Canadian and U.S. citizens can use the system.

Customs plans to bring the automated passport system to Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston Intercontinental, Orlando International in Florida and Toronto Pearson International Airport, McAleenan said.

The agency has struggled to keep pace with the growth of international arrivals without money to hire more officers, he said. A record 100 million international air passengers arrived in the U.S. last year.

Congress hasn’t acted on an administration request for an additional 3,500 officers to process airline passengers, McAleenan said.

International air carriers schedule flights at the same times during peak hours, McAleenan said. Some other arrivals occur when airports aren’t fully staffed.

“We have the challenge of trying to stretch all of the hours of service requested, as well as massing forces during peak periods,” McAleenan said. “Overtime is one way to help bridge those gaps.”

Editors: Michael Shepard and Don Frederick.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net.

Tags: CBP, jfk, nyc, passports