Queuing up in lines is a fact of life for airline passengers. The wait to get through security to catch departing flights can be frustrating. The misery is compounded for jet-lagged travelers who can step off an eight-hour flight and discover a line snaking through immigration that will add an hour or two to their journey.
Airports and airlines say they don’t like it any more than the customers, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it doesn’t like the waits either.
International flights bring 300,000 passengers and crews daily to the U.S. The numbers drove U.S. federal agencies and the local, independent authorities that run airports to collaborate on a new system that helps visitors get through customs faster.
Now, more than 40 percent of international arrivals head straight to the blue, self-service Automated Passport Control kiosks to scan their passports and answer the standard customs declaration questions. They take a “selfie” with the device, which prints out the picture and information on a receipt the person takes right to a customs officer.
U.S. and Canadian citizens and permanent legal residents can use the kiosks. So can visitors from 38 countries with reciprocal visa waiver agreements with the United States, including European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Brunei and South Korea. Visitors from those places get their fingerprints taken electronically at the kiosks.
There are now more than 1,300 kiosks at 34 U.S. airports and in eight other countries where passengers can clear U.S. customs before boarding flights. It is fast and free, unlike the Global Entry program that travelers must sign up for in advance and pay $100.
Jennifer Evanitsky, a spokeswoman for the customs agency, said the kiosks have been used more than 95 million times since the program began in 2013, and wait times have decreased by as much as 27 percent at some airports.
The kiosks, each costing $35,000 to $50,000, are bought and maintained not by the government but by the airports as a service to their customers. O’Hare International in Chicago — the first U.S. airport to use the kiosks — has spent several million dollars purchasing them.
“It’s absolutely worth it,” said Charles Goedken, international operations manager at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “If passengers going to Denver from Hong Kong can get through Seattle faster than it takes to go through Los Angeles, then the airline can market and book that ticket better.”
The kiosks have lowered the number of missed connections that can cause visitors to lose a precious day of vacation or miss an important meeting.
Dan Agostino, an assistant aviation director at Miami International Airport, which has seen wait times drop even as international arrivals grew sharply, said: “Getting them through [customs] is a very important thing for our airport. You can’t have somebody wait in a line for two hours and make a flight.”