Flying Through U.S. Customs

Feb. 25, 2015
New passport scanners offer travelers shorter lines, faster processing and increased convenience

On a typical day, more than a quarter million air travelers arrive in the U.S. from airports around the world.  According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), this number will continue to grow as the volume of international air passengers increases by an estimated 4 percent per year.

New Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks are making a big impact on CBP facilities and international terminals across the nation. These “self-serve” machines expedite screening times for international arriving passengers by eliminating the paper declaration forms they must complete upon entry to the U.S. This not only reduces passenger queuing and processing times by an estimated 33 percent, but optimizes the efficiency of CBP staff tasked with other security and enforcement duties.

How does it work?

With APC kiosks, the CBP officer’s administrative responsibility is reduced, allowing for shorter processing times. Travelers simply submit their customs declaration form and biographic information electronically.  They can select from 13 languages to use, with easy-to-follow instructions that guide them through the process of scanning their passport, taking a photograph, answering questions and fingerprinting (for non-U.S. citizens).

Passengers receive a printed receipt for entry and are then inspected by a CBP officer who verifies the purpose and intent of their travel. They can then proceed to baggage claim, customs declaration and exit. If a problem is detected at the kiosk, passengers are asked to queue at the primary booth for further processing by a CBP officer, who can immediately ask enforcement questions and make a decision regarding admissibility.

Federal officials estimate that using the kiosk should take no longer than 90 seconds for individuals and four minutes for a family of three.  Those eligible to use the machines are U.S. and Canadian citizens arriving from abroad, as well as travelers from the 38 Visa Waiver Countries who are also registered with the DBP’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization program. 

Skipping the line

Currently, 23 airports in the U.S. and Canada have the automated kiosks.  Among them is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where 40 APC kiosks were installed at its international terminal last September. During the start-up period, wait times have been reduced by an average of 39 percent for returning U.S. citizens and 18 percent for eligible foreign passport holders.  For example, airport officials estimate that a flight with 300 passengers would normally process in 45 minutes with multiple CBP booths open. With APC kiosks, returning U.S. citizens are waiting an average of 17.5 minutes less and foreign travelers are waiting an average of 11 minutes less for primary inspection 

At Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where 20 APC kiosks were installed in January 2014, wait times for U.S. citizens have been reduced from 30 minutes to, in some cases, two minutes. While the results vary from site to site, CBP officials say that, overall, the kiosks are easing their agency’s administrative burdens, maximizing existing staffing levels and enabling extra officers to supplement secondary processing, which also speeds up processing. 

Opportunities for innovation

While shaving time off the inspections process has resulted in significant benefits for travelers, it has also created the need to speed up processing time at secondary CBP screening, baggage claim and TSA re-checkpoint areas. Airport authorities are partnering with CBP officials on innovative solutions to relieve congestion. 

For example, Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, San Diego International Airport and other airports across the country have deployed teams of airport ambassadors to assist passengers with APC processing. Typically, two to three supplemental staff members are on-hand to help queue passengers, direct them to the next available kiosk, provide on-site assistance, review the printed receipt and direct them to the appropriate CBP officer.

New airport terminals are also being designed to accommodate additional DBP secondary exit control booths and, possibly, new “baggage first” areas to move passengers more quickly. Mobile applications are also under development that will enable travelers to complete all clearance forms electronically while on the aircraft en route to the U.S. airport. APC kiosks allow international travelers, including family groups, to submit their customs declaration form and biographic information electronically, thereby reducing the time they spend with a CBP officer. A passenger can select from 13 languages to use. Easy-to-follow instructions guide the user through the process, which includes scanning your passport, taking a photograph using the kiosk, answering questions, and fingerprinting for non-U.S. citizens. Travelers will then receive a receipt confirming their information and proceed to a CBP officer to complete their entry into the United States. Individuals can complete the process within 90 seconds and a family of three within four minutes.

Overall, APC kiosks allow travelers to benefit from an improved passenger experience and airports to benefit from increased efficiency and capacity. Combined with innovative queue management systems and other technology improvements, such as mobile applications that streamline the screening and processing of checked bags, they can help make waiting in line at the airport a thing of the past.

Peter Aarons is West Division aviation director and associate vice president for HNTB. He has more than 25 years of experience in planning, development, design, program and project management, and construction for airports. Contact him at [email protected].