Upon arriving in Chicago on Thursday after a 10-hour flight from Thailand, Faite Mack was happy to be almost home as he breezed through the border clearance process in an unheard-of five minutes at O'Hare International Airport.
While hundreds of foreign nationals clasped their paper declaration forms in long, slow-moving lines, Mack and his family officially re-entered the country in a jiffy by using a first-in-the-U.S. touch-screen kiosk system to clear customs.
"It's a lot more efficient, easier to do and faster,'' said Mack, who along with his family still had one more flight home to Grand Rapids, Mich., after a trip abroad to do charity work.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection kiosks, which for now are available only to U.S. citizens, work like this: A passenger scans his or her U.S. passport at the kiosk, which takes a photo of the person and confirms biographical and travel information. The passenger completes the customs declaration by answering questions on the touch screen. After receiving a receipt, the traveler proceeds to a customs officer to complete re-entry into the U.S.
The only slight glitch for the Mack family was that the airline they flew on required passengers to fill out the regular declaration paperwork aboard the plane because the flight attendants apparently did not know about the kiosks, Mack said.
The 32 self-service kiosks at O'Hare, which debuted more than a month ago but were officially introduced Thursday, have helped speed the re-entry process for U.S. citizens and allow customs officers to focus exclusively on scrutinizing arriving passengers rather than wasting time with paperwork.
The kiosks have effectively stretched the customs agency's resources, said Brian Bell, the chief customs officer at O'Hare.
"It gives our officers a better opportunity to focus on the traveler,'' Bell said. "'Where are you coming from? Is that the only place you traveled to? What were you doing there?' We get back to the basic skill set that our officers really need to do our job.''
Average wait times for all O'Hare passengers during busy periods have fallen to 34 minutes from 50 minutes since the kiosks were installed at a cost of $2.2 million, paid by the airlines, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.
"The new technology is exceeding everybody's expectations," Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the airport Thursday.
The overall number of passengers waiting more than an hour has been reduced 58 percent since the kiosks were deployed, according to the city Aviation Department.
United Airlines has reported a 31 percent reduction in passengers who missed their flight connections because of backups in the customs hall.
"At this time last year we routinely, almost every day, had line waits at the peak afternoon of two hours or longer for everybody,'' said Charles Duncan, a United vice president at O'Hare. "The line would snake all the way down the hall and up the escalators. We had to turn the escalators off for safety. It was a tragedy for visitors and U.S. citizens alike.''
"Today, the line for U.S. citizens has gone from two hours-plus to effectively zero, never more than five minutes,'' Duncan said.
Many travelers who arrived at O'Hare from international flights this week said they preferred the kiosks to traditional lines, in which they wait for a customs officer to check their passport and send them on their way.
"You press a few buttons and that's it," said Mitzi Hamilton, of Barrington, who said at O'Hare on Tuesday that she flies every summer internationally with her husband on vacations.
The customs lines are typically "horrible in every airport, really," Hamilton said, because the officers "take their time" when checking passports.
But Patricia Hernandez, 30, who arrived Tuesday from Mexico City, said officials still had to check her documents by hand after she went through the kiosk line. She said she's not convinced the kiosks will create a shorter wait time. The screen was not sensitive, and "you have to press and press" for it to respond,'' she said, adding that "you also have to read through all this stuff that is senseless, really."
On the other hand, Jessica Rodriguez, 17, who arrived the same day at O'Hare from Mexico City, said she liked the kiosk experience because "it's not as intimidating as having the official there and looking at you."
An increase in international travel has fueled long lines — and waits that can extend for several hours — this summer in airport customs halls at major U.S. airports.
Exorbitant wait times have occurred at O'Hare, Los Angeles International, Kennedy International in New York, Dallas-Fort Worth International, Miami International and other major hubs, according to the airlines and groups representing business travelers.
Hourslong waits have frustrated travelers who already have been sitting on planes for up to 17 hours on some long-haul flights from Asia. Many travelers complained that they have missed connections because of understaffed customs facilities.
O'Hare is so far the only U.S airport to use the automated passport control kiosks, said Kevin McAleenan, acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He said other airports will follow, but a launch schedule has not been worked out.
Airline industry officials blame the rollout's pace on a lack of funding.
At O'Hare on Thursday morning during a peak period of airliners coming in from Asian countries, U.S. passport holders were processed by the kiosks in less than 15 minutes, while the line of foreign citizens zigzagged around the room, forcing passengers to endure extensive delays.
Critics say the customs agency needs more funding to expand the kiosks to other U.S. airports and to beef up staffing of officers.
"Customs has to do a better job relieving endless wait times for millions of people," said Joseph Sitt, chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance, a group that advocates for improvements in air transportation in the New York-New Jersey area.
"We think New York should be first for solutions because of our impact on the rest of the country, but the bottom line is the agency needs a full-court press at all our major airports to improve quality of life, business efficiency and the U.S. brand," Sitt said.
Tribune reporter Michelle Manchir contributed.
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