International travelers beware: A shortage of U.S. Customs officers threatens to create long lines this summer for people flying into the region's airports.
Passengers arriving at Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy international airports sometimes waited longer than 90 minutes to have their passports checked during peak periods last summer. And there are indications things could get worse in 2007.
The number of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in the region is almost 7 percent lower than the targeted staffing level, said officials, who declined to say how many total officers were in place, citing security reasons. In addition, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey predicts a 3 percent increase in international travelers at the airports - to 9.6 million passengers - compared with 2006.
"This is one of the biggest concerns for the travel industry nationally," said Allen Kay, spokesman for the Travel Industry Association. "People from other countries don't feel welcome coming to the U.S. It's not intentional, CBP doesn't want to make people wait in long lines, but that's what's been happening."
Kelly Klundt, a Customs spokeswoman, said, "No extended waiting time is acceptable, but sometimes there are factors outside our control."
The shortage of customs officers in the New York-New Jersey area is far worse than the situation around the country. Nationwide, the Customs department is within 1 percent of its staffing goal, officials said.
"Fully staffing CBP positions in the New York and New Jersey area has been challenging since there are so many competing opportunities (for jobs) within law enforcement on the federal, state and local levels in the area," said Lucille Cirillo, spokeswoman for Customs in this region.
Also, officials said, the high cost of living in the metropolitan area makes it harder to recruit officers from other parts of the country.
Customs officials said they are trying to keep the lines from becoming grueling.
During the summer, officers from the seaports and other posts will be reassigned to work at the airports.
Federal authorities also are working with airlines to adjust flight schedules, directing international planes to terminals with less traffic or whenever possible scheduling their landings for off-peak times.
"We've been working closely with Customs and we're confident they'll be able to accommodate our travelers in a timely manner," said Julie King, spokeswoman for Continental Airlines.
The lines tend to be longer at JFK than at Newark Liberty, according to Customs records. LaGuardia Airport in Queens handles relatively few international flights, mostly from Canada and the Caribbean, and statistics for waiting times there were not available.
At Newark, the longest waiting time for passport checks last summer was 112 minutes between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Terminal C, according to statistics provided by Customs, while the longest average wait in Terminal B was 59 minutes between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. For afternoon arrivals at Terminal C, the average waiting time ranged from 18 minutes to 39 minutes.
At JFK, the longest wait last summer was 2 hours and 46 minutes at Terminal 4 between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The waiting times, as measured by Customs, cover the time from when air crew lock the planes wheels in place until after the plane's last passenger goes through the passport checkpoint.
The statistic does not include the time travelers spend getting their bags and going through the customs duty check.
Customs officials post wait time statistics on the Web site (http://cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/wait_times/) for people planning trips.
Last week, international travelers at Newark Airport seemed to have little trouble getting through Customs.
"It wasn't bad at all," said Trizia Venosa of Manchester, England, who said it took about 30 minutes to clear Customs. "They opened more desks when the line backed up a bit."
Peggy Clemmer of Memphis, Tenn., said it took her about 15 minutes at Newark airport on her flight from Shannon, Ireland.
"What I appreciated was they were so much nicer here in the U.S.," Clemmer said. "They greeted you with a smile."
When the lines grow long, there are fewer smiles from customs officers and travelers. That could be the case later this summer, officials said.
July and August tend to be the peak period for international into the region's airports, according to the Port Authority.
And this year, the numbers of travelers will be higher than the 9.3 million passengers who arrived in 2006, said William DeCota, the agency's aviation director.
"The weak dollar is attracting a lot of international visitors," DeCota said. "Then, on top of that, we have new international airlines and new international routes starting at our airports this summer."
How bad will things be on the customs lines?
"We are always worried whether there's sufficient level of staff to accommodate the demand," DeCota said. "You want to see people make it through the system in 30 minutes, but during peak periods last summer we had waiting times at JFK of approximately 2 hours."
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