Airlines urge passengers to complain to Congress about delays


Airlines have lost patience with delays at international airports caused by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and are appealing to the public to help solve the problem.

The Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents most of the major carriers, is asking frequent fliers and passengers getting off overseas flights to complain to Congress and President Bush that the INS isn't doing its job because of chronic under-staffing at busy airports.

Without some increase in staffing or a change in procedures at the 15 busiest international airports this summer, some travelers could face delays of two to five hours for immigration processing, according to ATA officials.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents international carriers, has added its protest as well.

IATA director general Gunter O. Eser asked Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner to prod the INS to action, suggesting that the immigration agency could use a "citizen's bypass" system that would speed up processing. Under that system -- which the INS experimented with, then abandoned -- U.S. citizens skip INS processing and have U.S. Customs Service inspectors check their passports.

INS officials have responded to the airlines' outcry by saying that they have steadily increased inspection staffing levels in recent months, and that they do not expect the summer delays that the airlines do.

But ATA officials are not satisfied with that answer.

"They're saying, 'Trust us,' but we've learned not to," said Richard Norton, the ATA's director of facilitation. "They've not responded in the past. We had one five-hour delay at Los Angeles for one carrier last summer, and two- to four-hour delays were routine."

The airlines helped lobby Congress last year for a $5 fee now paid by every international airline passenger to finance the hiring of more inspectors. But even though the new fee pumped up the INS's user-fee revenues to an estimated $169 million this year from $113 million, staffing levels are only about

percent ahead of last year, Norton said.

The INS had 1,289 inspectors when the $5 fee took effect last October; it now has 1,456 despite being funded for 1,900 positions.

The goal of increased staffing is to process an arriving passenger through all immigration and customs formalities in 45 minutes. That's an international standard routinely adhered to in most countries. The United States, however, is notorious for having the slowest and most cumbersome immigration processing in the world.

The Customs Service inspection process isn't part of the problem and, in fact, could serve as a model for how the INS could improve efficiency, airline officials assert.

Customs routinely thoroughly checks only one in 10 U.S. citizens, usually picking out those who meet a profile suggesting that they are likely to be smuggling contraband into the country. Since it started handling inspections that way, seizures of contraband have remained constant or have increased, according to customs officials.

In its defense, the INS says it has been adding airport inspectors steadily this spring and will continue to add them throughout the summer. About 1,900 immigration inspectors should be working by Sept. 30, spokes woman Virginia Kice said.

"We've assured Congress that we have a target of no delays in excess of 45 minutes," Kice said. "We've cut delays, which we consider a processing time of more than an hour, to almost nothing. We think we're doing a pretty good job. We've basically eliminated delays at major airports."

The INS remains steadfastly opposed to using a citizen's bypass system because the agency believes that it has a legal responsibility to inspect the travel documents of every person coming into the country, Kice said.

On the other hand, the INS is experimenting with other ways to speed up processing, including using more automation to scan U.S. citizens' passports, she said. Another method is "advance passenger information" in which the INS has a passenger list for a flight before it arrives. Pre-inspection, in which the INS process takes place before a flight takes off, is already used in Canada, the Bahamas and Bermuda.

In meantime, Kice contended, the INS is ready for the crush of summer travelers.

Let's see how things work this summer," she said. "T hey may be crying wolf too soon."

Budget Rent a Car has introduced technology that enables a customer to get detailed driving directions to virtually any address in major metropolitan areas. The Budget Point-to-Point Directions are available so far at Budget counters at 25 major airports and eventually will be at 50 airport locations.

Budget officials say the system is designed to be user-friendly, with a touch-screen computer terminal and a computerized database that produces a printout with narrative, step-by-step directions to the desired address.

Directions can be printed out in English, Spanish, German, French and Italian, and the company is working on making them available in Japanese.

Putting in the name of a well-known landmark, such as the local convention center or a major hotel, also will produce directions. Some other rental-car companies have computer systems that provide similar, standardized directions to important landmarks in a metropolitan area, but Budget officials say their system is the only one that helps get a driver to any address.

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