Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Breaking the travel gridlock


OUR OPINION: Miami International Airport has a temporary fix to stem international travelers’ delays, but Congress needs to act

Just in time for the Thanksgiving travel rush, Miami International Airport officials plan to have 36 self-service kiosks operating to accommodate U.S. and Canadian citizens traveling internationally. This is just one step of several MIA is taking to cut down the long waits that many overseas travelers must endure to enter the country.

How long is the wait? Between June 2012 and May 2013 it took more than 40,000 international passengers longer than two hours to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers, according to a new report by the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association. In April of this year, Miami had a peak processing wait time of 4.68 hours. That’s an atrocious record, and no way to welcome visitors with money to spend here.

But blame the federal government for being chintzy, not the airport, says the travel group.

Customs and Border officials work hard, but they are “just under-resourced,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the travel association. The report recommends hiring 3,500 more federal CBP officers to close the national gap, among other things.

Good proposal, but with Congress gridlocked over the budget and virtually everything else, good luck with that.

This is a disgrace in a lack of leadership on the Hill. The Customs delays are costing U.S. cities with major international airports big time — $12 billion a year and thousands of new jobs. Instead of standing in line at Customs four or five hours, travelers could be out spending money on shopping and dining. The travel group also argues that the long waits at Customs are discouraging foreign travelers from visiting the United States, which could mean a future loss of nearly $12 billion spent in other countries instead.

The travel group studied CBP data on wait times at five gateways: Miami, Chicago O’Hare, New York’s JFK, Washington Dulles and Los Angeles. None fared especially well, which bodes poorly for the ambitious U.S. goal of welcoming 100 million international visitors annually by 2021. Entertaining international visitors is one of the easiest ways for metropolitan areas to boost their economies, but first, you have to get those visitors through airport red tape.

Yet it isn’t as if Aviation Director Emilio González and MIA managers aren’t trying to ease the burden (last year, a whopping 6.8 million travelers visited Miami-Dade County via MIA). Airport bosses have a dedicated checkpoint to accommodate international travelers with connecting flights and more staff to direct passengers to available CBP officers.

And those new kiosks will allow U.S. and Canadian passengers to scan their passports, generating a receipt that a Customs officer still must read, but it supposedly will cut a two-minute process down to about 15 seconds. MIA also will participate in a pilot project in which it will pay for overtime for CBP officers. It has identified $6 million for that program. MIA has also worked with the CBP to streamline the arrival process by securing more overtime in the busy summer travel period and scheduling Customs officers’ shifts more efficiently.

U.S. Customs officials and Miami-Dade leaders have worked together to speed up the Customs process before, usually with a prod from our congressional delegation. South Florida’s members of Congress and both our senators need to keep pressing for a fix.

MIA needs more CBP officers and updated technology from the feds to make our visitors’ wait in the Customs line a breeze instead of a grindingly slow welcome to greater Miami.

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