Long Lines At Airports Have Got To Go, Says Travel Association

Photo – Chris Owen


The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been working on addressing long lines at airport security screening areas for quite some time. TSA Precheck lanes are being expanded to more airports every year and Global Entry lets frequent, pre-authorized travelers to zip into the United States. Just last week, we reported faster airport screening via a new TSA program. But that’s not enough, says a travel trade organization, urging Congress to take action.

The U.S. Travel Association (USTA) is battling what they believe to be the cause of problems at our airports; budget restrictions and poor planning. They believe the current system leaves airports unable to handle millions of visitor a year. They have some specific recommendations too.

Calling for a 50-percent reduction in peak the wait times, the USTA believes it should take just 30 minutes to process travelers. They want Customs and Border Protection staffing and participation in the Global Entry Program increased. Congress should be involved in an ongoing way, and should require periodic progress reports, says the association in a list of 20 recommended policy changes.
Back at the TSA, the new system is indeed a step in the right direction, classifying travelers into three tiers — expedited, standard or enhanced — with each level requiring different procedures and qualifiers. The current system treats all travelers the same and is exactly what the Travel Association wants changed.

In an Open Letter to the U.S. Congress, over 70 travel leaders even suggested ways to fund the additional programing necessary to address the problem and increase transparency in the entire process. It’s a lofty goal but one worthy of pursuit: the U.S. economy could lose $95 billion and 518,000 jobs over the next five years due to long security and customs lines at the nation’s airports.

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International Travelers Like Global Entry VIP Speed Lane

international travelers
golf082/Flickr

International travelers arriving in the United States this summer are often faced with a waiting time of three hours or longer to clear U.S. Customs. If their first stop in the U.S. is not their final destination, that wait can easily add up to missed connections too. In March, with several international flights on my upcoming travel schedule, I took a look at what could be done to speed things up.

“It’s a major problem,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at Airlines for America in a Wall Street Journal report. “People get very, very frustrated when they spend seven or nine or even as long as 17 hours on a flight and then wait another two to three hours in line. People get really unhappy.”

I saw that unhappiness first hand at Orlando International Airport (MCO), my hometown airport and one that sees a bunch of families as the gateway to a number of central Florida theme parks and attractions. It has always been good to be an American at Orlando customs where the line for U.S. citizens is a fraction of what those from other countries face. Still, with recent government cutbacks, lines and waiting time for all had increased.Looking into the Trusted Traveler program, I liked the idea of speeding through the process of entering the United States. I rarely have anything to declare and travel enough internationally to make the $100 fee, good for five years, worth it. After completing an online application, U.S. Customs and Border Protection performed a background check, conditionally approved the application and then allowed scheduling of a one-on-one interview with a customs agent at a choice of local locations. That interview took no more than five minutes and off I went with my Global Entry ID card, something I would never need again.

Arriving in the United States, program members go directly to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport, scan fingertips for verification then make a customs declaration. The kiosk issues a transaction receipt, which is very much like a second fast pass, used to access a second fast line after baggage has been claimed and others are being checked again.

Entering the U.S. in Atlanta (ATL) on a flight from London, the process could not have been smoother. I walked from the plane to my connection with just a brief stop at the Global Entry kiosk, the luggage claim area and on through customs.

A bonus to Global Entry is that it also admits participants to the TSA Pre✓™ program, normally reserved for frequent fliers of certain airlines. In the dedicated TSA Pre✓™ lanes at participating airports screening might not require removing shoes, 3-1-1 liquids, laptops, belts or taking off a jacket.

The down side? If traveling with others who are not part of the Global Entry or TSA Pre✓™ program, I still have to wait for them but can do so at a comfortable airport lounge.


Gaining Global Entry: A Simple Process For Frequent Fliers

global entry kioskToday’s frequent travelers are looking for any way possible to cut lines and make the travel process shorter, faster and more pleasant. Now, for just $100, this goal is easier than ever.

The Global Entry program from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency allows “expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.”

The program is marketed at frequent international travelers, but there is no minimum number of trips needed to qualify for the program.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You arrive from an international flight and proceed to a small kiosk machine (located at these airports), where you’ll scan your passport, place your fingertips on a machine for recognition, and verify basic information about your flight. You’ll also make a customs declaration and have your photo taken.
  2. Next, you’ll get a receipt and head directly to the baggage claim.

Of course, travelers must be low-risk, meaning that they are U.S. citizens with no criminal or customs violations history and that they are generally upstanding citizens with no federal, local or state agency attempting to collect from them.

Sounds simple enough, right? What many travelers don’t know is that Global Entry also qualifies travelers for the new TSA Pre-Check program, which allows travelers flying certain airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways) to keep their shoes on and laptops and liquids in their carry-on bags at security.

After a marathon session in the customs line coming back from Toronto earlier this year, I decided to test the program for myself. The online application was no more difficult than a standard job application, and several weeks later, I was ready with a conditional approval. The fee was a non-refundable $100, which places me in the program for five years. The waiting period for an interview was long – about 60 days – but many airports do allow walk-in appointments.I watched a six-minute video about the program before a brief consultation with a security officer. The interview ran through basic background questions, I was asked if I’d ever been arrested, had moving violations other than basic traffic tickets, or had any other criminal history that they should know about. The officer took my photo, scanned my fingerprints, and sent me on my way. The next morning, my application was approved.

These simple steps could save me an hour or more in lines at the airport and cost only $100 for five years.

For frequent travelers, even those who travel out of the country only once per year, the program is well worth it.

[Image Credit: Flickr via CBP Photography]

Speed Through Airport Security Checkpoints, One Way Or Another

airport security

As airport security checkpoints get more crowded and lines get longer, travelers are arriving earlier than ever to make that flight on time. Arrive late; miss the flight. Once at the gate, passengers may wait longer than normal as airlines juggle the start of boarding with actual anticipated takeoff time. Keeping passengers in the aircraft or on the ground too long may result in a hefty fine. While the aircraft may be ready and the flight crew willing, passengers may face delays beyond their control caused by budget cutbacks.

Frequently flying out of Orlando International Airport (MCO), I see crowds on most days at just about any time as vacationers come in town to visit Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or any one of a number of central Florida attractions. Frankly, the thought of the process being slowed down by budget cuts is terrifying to those who work out of that airport.

How terrifying? Enough to make frequent fliers re-think their game plans and look for new ways to expedite the boarding process.

Take The Express Lane
airport securityI recently re-joined CLEAR, the biometric fast pass through security at MCO. I had been a member in 2005 when the service had over 200,000 members. But shortly after a laptop with the names and detailed information of 33,000 CLEAR customers was reported stolen in 2008, the service shut down. Starting back up in 2010, I had thought about joining again but was a bit apprehensive about the whole program and lines seemed to move along pretty well at MCO anyway.

Then came talk of sequestering, budget cuts and TSA downsizing, which quickly reminded me just how much I hate lines, slow people and inefficiency. Example: On a rolling sidewalk at the Minneapolis/St Paul airport, clearly marked stand to the right, walk to the left, I made a point of educating our children that “there is no ‘mosey’ lane kids.”

Primed to take the bait of a LivingSocial CLEAR trial offer ($18 for three months, spouse included), we stopped by the CLEAR kiosk not long ago to complete registration. I answered a variety of security questions and gave prints of fingers and thumbs, along with a retina scan and a copy of my passport and driver’s license. The process took about five minutes. From what I could see, that was far longer than those observed going through the CLEAR security checkpoint.

Stopping briefly to verify their identity then right on through the normal x-ray scan without any wait has the potential to save passengers time. One TSA officer told me, without hesitation, that amount of time could be “hours if staffing is reduced.”

The main drawback with CLEAR is that it is only offered in a few airports. Besides Orlando International Airport (MCO), CLEAR service is available at Denver International Airport (DEN), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and Westchester NY Airport (HPN).

Will I keep CLEAR after the three-month trial? Hard to say; at an annual rate of $179 per person, frequent fliers working out of a CLEAR-enabled airport will probably have no trouble justifying the price. As reports of actual government cutbacks cause longer lines, even less-than-frequent fliers could suddenly become interested, as I was.

For travelers not based by a CLEAR-enabled airport, there are other options though. To get there, we need to start by thinking outside of the United States.

Global Entry Program
airport securityInternational arrivals can speed up the process of entering the United States by using automated kiosks at most major U.S. airports via the Global Entry Program. I signed up for this one too because I have several international flights coming up in the next few months. The $100 fee is good for five years.

One of several Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler Programs, including SENTRI (expedites crossing between the U.S. and Mexico), and NEXUS (expedites processing between the U.S. and Canada), Global Entry requires a fairly detailed online application to begin.

You’ll need your valid passport, driver’s license and a clean criminal record to get conditionally approved. A face-to-face appointment at an airport processing center completes the application.

TSA Pre
airport securityThe TSA Pre✓ program allows some frequent fliers, invited by their participating host airline (Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines or US Airways), along with those enrolled in a Trusted Traveler Program, to speed through the airport screening process for domestic flights.

Odds are that if you qualify for the program through an airline, you already know about it. Those who don’t make it via airline invitation can back up to the Global Entry Program, pay the $100 for five years and enjoy the benefits.

Once enrolled in one of CBP’s eligible Trusted Traveler Programs, like the Global Entry Program mentioned above, air travelers are automatically qualified to participate in TSA Pre when flying a participating airline at a participating airport.

To make that work, once signed up for a Trusted Traveler Program, travelers provide their Trusted Traveler account number in the “Known Traveler Number” field when booking travel.

That number, along with reservation information goes into TSA’s Secure Flight system and enables access to the TSA Pre✓ line at participating airports by embedding a secret code in boarding passes.

In addition to a faster lane, TSA Pre✓-approved travelers can leave their shoes, light outerwear and belts on and keep their 311 liquids packed away. Laptops and small electronics no longer have to be removed either. The program is no guarantee of expedited processing, as TSA will continue random checks, but it sure can’t hurt.

Orlando International Airport where I am trying the CLEAR membership is one of those airports.
Observing both the CLEAR line and the TSA Pre ✓ line, CLEAR seems to be the winner for speed. We’ll find out as we test both over the next few months.

Travelers React to Big Changes on Airport Security

[Photo Credits- Flickr user alist - tsa.gov - Chris Owen]

Los Cabos becomes Mexico’s first destination for global entry and pre-clearance programs

los cabos archLater this month, Los Cabos will become the first area in Mexico to offer Global Entry kiosks for international travelers arriving at the San Jose del Cabo International Airport (SJD).

Beginning on May 24, Global Entry kiosks will be stationed within the airport to allow pre-approved, low-risk travelers to avoid standing in line and proceed directly to the kiosk for expedited clearance upon arrival to Los Cabos. Additionally, Los Cabos is in the final stages of government approval to become the first destination in Mexico to offer border pre-clearance, which will provide added convenience for travelers upon arrival as well as departure. In the case of the latter, U.S. Customs Agents will be stationed at SJD to provide streamlined border and Customs procedures, significantly reducing the amount of time required to clear customs upon re-entry to the U.S. This new service, beginning later this year if approved, will also enhance ease of travel and expediency from regional gateways, where airports may not be equipped to process Customs directly.

“Los Cabos is proud to pioneer these exciting U.S. Customs and Border Protection programs in Mexico for international travelers,” said Gonzalo Franyutti, President of the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The establishment of Global Entry kiosks at SJD confirms that Los Cabos is one of the most desirable tourism destinations in the world.”

Although this program is intended for frequent travelers, there is no minimum number of trips necessary to qualify.

While we’re thrilled to see it become faster and easier to visit one of our favorite vacation destinations, we can’t help but wonder if this is a good idea, given the violence in other areas of the country. Could making it easier for travelers to enter and exit Los Cabos open this heretofore safe area to problems? We surely hope not.


[Flickr via Brenda Blue]