Outsourcing customs duties to a private company can solve a problem for the short term -- especially during the sequester period -- but it's no long-term solution.
Delta Air Lines Inc.’s financing of automated passport-control kiosks at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport cut wait times in half a month into their use, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
The average wait for all time slots is now 16.6 minutes, down from 34.9 minutes in October 2012, according to agency data. The average maximum wait is now 58.2 minutes, down from 97 minutes a year ago.
“Cutting wait times in half is dramatic early evidence that automated kiosks work in relieving the unacceptably long wait times JFK has experienced,” said Joe Sitt, chairman of Global Gateway Alliance, a trade organization advocating for improvements at New York’s airports.
JFK is the busiest U.S. entry point for international passengers, according to the the Manhattan-based group. The alliance pushed Customs to install automated passport control after complaints of lengthy lines holding up travelers by as much as five hours. Delta’s decision to pay for the kiosks was one way private-industry partners are helping roll out the program, CBP said in September.
Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama need to allocate funds to hire more CBP officers, create ‘rapid response teams’ that would move between terminals as crowds form, and make more data on wait times available to the public, Sitt said.
During early morning periods the results were more dramatic. Between 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., passengers now wait an average of 11 minutes, down from 53 minutes in October 2012, according to agency data. Maximum wait times in that slot have dropped to 25 minutes, compared with 163 minutes a year ago.
“Now it’s time for CBP and Congress to bring the technology to all of our international terminals and implement a comprehensive solution,” Sitt said.
The delays at airports “hurts the brand and economy of New York and the U.S. as a whole,” he said.
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.
Peak wait times reached a high of 4.5 hours at JFK in December 2012, the Washington-based group said. At Miami in April 2013, the peak wait times were 4.7 hours. Delays that long put as much as $95 billion of tourist spending at risk over the next five years, the group said.
Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson, whose company opened a $1.4 billion international terminal at JFK this year, has called the delays an “embarrassment” that discourages tourism and threatens U.S. economic growth.
Editors: Elizabeth Wasserman, Allan Holmes. To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at [email protected]. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at [email protected].
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Photo credit: The Delta airline logo is seen on a strap at JFK Airport in New York. Joshua Lott / Reuters