Now the long line forms even before you get to the airport.
Travelers applying for passports are facing waits of 10 weeks -- instead of the usual four to six -- as the State Department grapples with record demand. Procrastinators are spending hours queuing up at passport offices and on hold after calling the agency's toll-free phone number. Nearly 100 people were outside the Los Angeles office in Westwood by 7:30 a.m. Monday, and some had arrived well before dawn.
"These are extraordinary circumstances," said Derwood Staeben of the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "We didn't quite anticipate the spike that we're seeing right now."
Passport agency employees have been ordered to work overtime, including nights and weekends, and 49 new employees were hired this month.
Susan Fogwell, a United Airlines flight attendant from Princeton, N.J., said she called for three days trying to get an appointment recently in Philadelphia, her nearest regional center, to renew her passport. When Fogwell showed up for her appointment, a line stretched around the block.
"It looked like a Rolling Stones concert 25 years ago," she said. "People have to be forewarned. If they think they're flitting off to Paris in two weeks, it's going to be a nightmare."
March is always the busiest month for passports as travelers firm up spring and summer trips. This year, the paper chase has been complicated by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which took effect Jan. 23 and requires passports for flights to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Some people may be confused about the law, Staeben said, and not realize that if you're traveling to those places by land or sea, you won't need a passport until 2008.
In a rare move, the State Department last week posted a notice on its website, , saying that applicants may have to wait 10 weeks instead of six for passports. Expedited service, which costs an extra $60 plus overnight shipping costs, may take four weeks or "possibly longer" instead of the usual two weeks, according to the website.
"We did anticipate tremendous demand and we've been preparing for it," said Staeben, the State Department's special advisor for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. "We hope to get back to our normal turnaround time as soon as possible."
Every month lately, record numbers of passports are being issued, he said. The surge started last November, typically the slowest month, when the State Department processed 1.1 million passports, up 67% from November 2005. This year, the agency expects to issue 17 million passports, compared to 12.1 million in 2006 and 10.1 million the previous year.
In addition to the mandatory overtime for employees at the regional passport offices, workers at the Washington headquarters are volunteering to help answer phones. A new "mega-processing center" in Hot Springs, Ark., is scheduled to open next month. In the last two years, 250 employees have been added. An additional 86 are being hired this year.
That was little comfort to Lisa Cruz, 41, of Buena Park, a manicurist for a rock band who needed a passport for a trip to Britain on Sunday. She applied for expedited service Feb. 9 but didn't want to take any chances. She waited 4 1/2 hours Thursday at the Los Angeles passport office to get help and had to return twice Monday before she got the document.
"If you have an appointment, plan on being here all day," she said.
Even third-party expediting companies, private businesses that have an allotted number of daily appointments at passport offices, are facing obstacles.
"Our business has been packed to the max," said Porter Briggs, owner of A Briggs Passport & Visa Expeditors Inc. in Washington. "We can't do any more passports; we can't answer any more phone calls. We're having to tell a large number of people we simply can't help them. And that's no fun."
Proposal will temporarily waive requirement for U.S. passports to be used for air travel to and from Canada and Mexico with passport application
Starting Tuesday, Canadian, Mexican and Bermudan air travelers, as well as U.S. citizens flying home from those countries or the Caribbean, must display their passports to enter the United States.
San Francisco International Airport is the first in the nation set to accept new passports embedded with computer chips that contain a traveler's photo and data.
An October deadline looms for a requirement that Visa waiver travelers produce e-Passports upon entering the United States.