U.S. goal: make international arrivals more welcoming

MIA Operations Specialist Dayron Rodriguez demonstrates passport kiosks at Miami International Airport’s Terminal D in this 2013 file photo.
MIA Operations Specialist Dayron Rodriguez demonstrates passport kiosks at Miami International Airport’s Terminal D in this 2013 file photo. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

With an eye on bringing 100 million international visitors a year — and billions of their dollars — to the United States by 2021, the White House on Friday announced several measures to make arriving at the country’s airports a better experience.

Those steps include the installation of 340 more automated passport control kiosks at busy airports; the elimination of a paper customs form by the end of next year; new technology that allows passport and customs information to be entered on mobile devices and specific action plans for 17 major international airports.

Included in that list of airports is Miami International Airport, one of the busiest international gateways in the country, and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which has seen its number of international flights skyrocket.

The actions, meant to create “a best-in-class international arrivals experience, as compared to our global competitors,” were laid out in a report by the secretary of the Department of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson.

Last year, Obama directed the secretaries to come up with ways to improve the international arrivals experience as a follow up to his 2012 announcement of the 100 million visitor goal. At the time, he also issued an executive order to speed up visitor visas for Brazil and China. Since then, waiting periods in those market have decreased from highs of several months to an average of less than five days.

And international visitor numbers have increased from 70 million in 2013 to an estimated 74 million in 2014. Over the last five years, the report said, the number of annual international visitors has increased by 19 million.

“This is good news, but every other international destination is competing fiercely with us for international visitors and the jobs they support,” Pritzker and Johnson wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “First impressions matter, and when overseas travelers arrive at our airports, it is important that they have a positive experience. The safety and security of this country will always come first, but we can and must also ensure that the travel experience continues to be welcoming, friendly, and efficient.”

To improve the experience at the 17 airports that receive nearly 74 percent of all international travelers to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security developed action plans in consultation with airports, airlines and industry partners.

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which saw a “sharp rise” last year in the amount of time arriving passengers had to wait to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the plan includes the addition of more automated passport control kiosks, an expansion of which travelers can use them and the deployment of mobile passport options later this year.

The plan also calls for the airport, airlines and CBP to develop a list of goals to manage international arrivals as terminal expansion and construction continues.

Airport spokesman Gregory Meyer said the airport and Port Everglades added 40 CBP agents last year and 20 passport kiosks, which helped keep wait times in check.

But, he said, a 24.6 percent increase in international passengers still had an impact. According to the action plan released Friday, wait times increased by 27 percent in 2014 to 25.2 minutes despite increased staffing and greater enrollment in trusted traveler programs and use of automated passport kiosks.

“The airport has grown with international traffic exponentially, faster than I think anyone anticipated or could keep up with,” Meyer said.

Miami International Airport, which has in the past recorded wait times of up to five hours, saw “significantly” shorter lines in 2014, the report says. That’s thanks to increased staffing, faster processing and more use of automated options.

According to the report, the average wait at Terminal D was down 19 percent to 24.2 minutes in 2014; in Terminal J, the average time dropped from 31.3 minutes in 2013 to 25.4 minutes last year. At both terminals, 94 percent of passengers were being processed in less than an hour.

Actions planned for MIA include posting wait times so travelers will know what to expect, automated queue management systems and more self-service kiosks. The airport will also launch the mobile passport control app this year.

“We welcome the White House’s efforts to improve the international arrivals process through increased use of technology, reduced paperwork and streamlined processes,” Miami-Dade Aviation Director Emilio T. González said in a statement. “As America’s second-busiest airport for international passengers and the front door to a red-hot tourist destination, MIA has long been at the forefront of this movement, introducing Automated Passport Control kiosks back in 2013 and working closely with our federal partners to find creative, airport-funded solutions to CBP staffing issues. This year, we look forward to more than doubling our kiosk inventory and to becoming a pilot member of CBP’s Mobile Passport Control project.”