Travel

7/3 Update: Diary of a trip through passport application limbo

Editor's note: You buy your air ticket and book the hotel for that overseas vacation. Oh no -- your passport is about to expire. With processing delays lasting months, will you get it in time? It can happen to anyone, even the experts. Los Angeles Times Travel Editor Catharine Hamm is caught in Passport Processing Limbo. Here is her diary -- click here to jump to the latest update:


Discuss your passport experiences and dilemmas, then solicit advice from L.A. Times experts and fellow travelers on our Travel Message Boards.


May 9, 2007: I begin working on a column about an 18-year-old traveler whose passport has expired, which she discovers after she has already left the country with her mom, dad and two siblings. She gets sent home from Paris to get a new passport. Yikes. What a bad way to find out. But I know my passport is valid because I was just in Peru in November. What do I have to worry about?

May 9-24: I conduct various interviews with the family, State Department officials, travel experts and others about the unfortunate traveler. The No. 1 piece of advice: Check to see the expiration date on your passport. I turn in the column May 24.

May 29: I read page proofs of the column before it goes into print. It looks ... OK. But something is wrong.

May 30: Something is bothering me about passports, but I can't put my finger on it.

June 1: I figure it out: My passport will expire in 18 days. A travel editor without a passport is like Paris Hilton without a party. Oh, the horror. I go to the U.S. Department of State website to figure out what to do next. It tells me I need form DS 82 and new photos.

June 2: I happen by the Mission Viejo library, where they are processing passport applications and taking photos. I don't have my passport with me — I don't need one to go to the O.C. — but I do need a picture. I am dressed very casually, which is to stay slovenly. My passport picture shows a smirking middle-aged woman in a baseball jersey and pearls. I look quintessentially American. The flush of my face suggests I also look menopausal.

June 6: I've just heard from a reader who sent her passport in on April 5 and still doesn't have it. Uh-oh. If I want to go to Italy in October, I'd better get cracking. Backlogs are growing.

June 7: The State Department says it will be flexible about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) regarding passports for travel to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. That's great. But I'm not planning to go to those places. I better get a move on it.

June 8: I get out my Looney Tunes checkbook and write one (picturing Tweety and Sylvester) for $67 to the State Department. I'm not asking for expedited service because I want to see how long this takes. I print out first-class postage with tracking info, paste it on a No. 0 bubble mailer envelope, place my old passport, check, pictures and signed application inside and take it to the Times mailbox downstairs, where, I pray, it soon will be winging its way to Philadelphia.

June 11: My envelope is on its way to Philly!

Here's what my tracking info says about my envelope:

"Status: En route. Your item was processed and left our Swedesboro, NJ 08085 facility on June 11, 2007."

Philadelphia, here it comes (I hope).

Meanwhile, I get a press release from two U.S. senators' offices saying this:

"Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) -- leaders of Senate efforts to fix flaws in plans to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) -- are asking the State and Homeland Security Departments to use the extra time their legislation allows to work out the problems in the border-crossing scheme, before it is implemented....

"Leahy and Stevens, senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, last fall pushed through to enactment their legislation giving the two departments up to 17 extra months, until June 1, 2009, to address WHTI's many problems. The Leahy-Stevens amendment sets out seven requirements that must be certified to Congress before the program can be implemented. So far, the Bush administration has maintained that it will not use and does not need extra time to be ready."

June 12: The envelope containing my passport application was delivered at 4:54 a.m. today, the Postal Service website, tells me.

A story in tomorrow's L.A. Times says that some WHTI countries may let you in without a passport but not without a birth certificate, which I also don't have.

Note to self: Call bureau of vital stats in Onondaga County, N.Y., just in case, and pray I don't have to go to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean or Bermuda by air any time soon.

June 15: I decided to get brave and look up and see whether my application is actually in the process (www.travel.state.gov and click on (Click Here for Proof of Passport Application.) Here's what the website said:

"Thank you for submitting your passport application! It is currently being processed.

When you applied, you requested Routine Service.

You should receive your passport within 10-12 weeks from the date you applied. If you are traveling within 2 weeks and have not received your passport, please contact the National Passport Information Center with the above locator number. It will enable them to update you on the status of your application.

Wow. That gives me hope.

But I also had an interview this morning with Colin Walle, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, and he tells me the passport backlog is close to 3 million. The good news: The backlog has shrunk in the last couple of weeks. The bad news: The backlog was only 1.3 million in February.

June 18: There seems to be some confusion about how big the backlog of passports actually is. The L.A. Times reported on June 7 (and the Washington Post reported again over the weekend) that the backlog is 500,000. But Colin Walle, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, says it is almost six times that many.

If it's only a half-million, is Congress overreacting by discussing a delay (until June 2009) in implementing the land and sea portion of this initiative (the one that says you have to have a passport even if you're not flying)? According to USA Today, the Department of Homeland Security opposes the delay.

I'm hearing from some travelers that the link on the State Department's website that is supposed to show whether you've applied (www.travel.state.gov/passport/get/status/status_2567.html) is not working - at least, not for them. If these people are traveling within two weeks, they're the ones who will have to sit on the phone, try to get an appointment and then go to the passport agency and try to get the mess straightened out.

It's inconvenient and it's time consuming. Is that the price we pay for the luxury of travel? Are we too demanding? Or is there cause for complaint?

June 19: Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to meet today to discuss the passport mess. News reports say that the Senate has asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to end the backlog. What, she's supposed to waive a magic wand and somehow catch up? Let's get real here. The people who process these passports are, according to Colin Walle, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998 and himself a passport adjudicator, supposed to process 24 passports an hour. By my math, if there are 500,000 passports in a backlog, it will take 20,833 hours to catch up. Or if one person worked 40 hours a week doing passports, it would take 520 days for him or her to finish the 500,000 (no days off, of course). Obviously, there's more than one person working on adjudicating passports, but consider that the 500,000 is not the regular workload but the backlog. Oh, and there's some dispute about that 500,000 number; Walle says it's closer to 3 million, which would take 125,000 hours to get caught up, or one person 3,125 days to catch up-about 8-1/2 years. Yikes!

June 20: So much news. None with my passport, of course, and I shouldn't expect any. Last I checked (yesterday) it was still in process, and it's likely to remain that way for at least 12 weeks. Today's Los Angeles Times story on the passport debacle chilled me to the bone. In their story, Peter Pae and Molly Hennessey-Fiske paint a vivid picture: 110,000 applications piled in a closet in a Seattle processing center. Government officials acknowledging that they failed to anticipate the crush. And then, this closing of the story:

"On Friday, [Ann] Barrett [deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services] came to the Capitol with Department of Homeland Security officials to brief congressional staffers on the travel initiative's progress, saying her office was prepared to meet the original January 2008 deadline.

"The staffers laughed."

And that dispute about numbers of backlogged passports? It seems to have been resolved. In testimony on Tuesday in the Senate, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, said the backlog was indeed 3 million. That 500,000 number was the number that had already taken longer than 10 to 12 weeks.

5:20 p.m. update: The passport status site says it is down for maintenance.

June 21, 7 a.m.: The passport application status site is back up.

The site also says this:

"You must follow these instructions to prove the status of your passport application for those Americans traveling by air to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean as part of the recently announced Temporary Travel Flexibility for U.S. Citizens with Pending Passport Applications. You must keep a print out of your passport application status for departure from the U.S. and for re-entry into the U.S. Some countries may still require a passport. Please see the Consular Information Sheet on the country you are traveling to for more information."

When you check through your status, it also tells you this:

"National Passport Information Center

"Contact Information for applications submitted in the U.S. (or its territories) only!

"The toll-free phone number is 1-877-487-2778. For hearing impaired customers, please call TDD/TTY 1-888-874-7793.

"Our hours of operations are 6 a.m. to 12 midnight, Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, excluding Federal Holidays.

"We have limited weekend hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) to assist customers traveling within the next 7 days."

June 22: Growing increasingly nervous about not having a birth certificate, I followed the advice offered by a respondent on the Travel section's Angry Traveler message board. The respondent, ptrsansom, directs readers to his blog, WhirledView. There he recommended using an outfit called www.vitalchek.com, which bills itself as an "express certificate service," to order a birth certificate. (It also offers death certificates as well as divorce and marriage records.)

I went through the process and just paid $56.95 ($45 for the record, $11.95 processing fee) from Onondaga County, N.Y. If I had gone directly to the N.Y. State bureau of vital stats, it would have cost me $30, but according to the message on the answering machine in the Syracuse office, it also would have taken four to six weeks.

Vitalchek promises delivery in 10 to 14 business days (and for $69.95, I could have had it in five to 10 business days). By my calculation, I should have it, at the latest, by July 19 (accounting for the Fourth of July holiday).

For comparison, I also ordered one for my mother. Hers cost $21 total -- $12 for the certificate, $9 for Vitalchek's processing fee. Why is it that things in the Midwest are always less expensive than the East or the West?

June 26: The State Department's Office of Customer Service sent me a little note that arrived Saturday. "Thank you for applying for a U.S. passport," it said. "We have received your application and it is being processed."

Then it told me I could monitor its progress online at www.travel.state.gov/passport, and I also could complete an online form if I had inquiries at www.travel.state.gov/passport/about/npic/npic_896.html.

Meanwhile, a Times colleague who is going to Mexico and applied for his passport, expedited, four weeks ago got through to the passport office on the (877) 487-2778 number. Here's his record of his conversation with a worker on Friday:

"She advised me that my passport 'looks like it's moving right along real good. Just has a couple more steps to go.'

" 'How many steps is a couple?' I asked.

" 'Bout four,' she replied.

"ETA?

" 'No way of telling that. People might work on it or they might set it aside. I'd call back and check on it Tuesday or Wednesday.' "

"Hmmm. So a 'couple' of steps actually means double that. Is she saying that two is the new four? Uh huh. And 50 is the new 30, which I consider one of the bigger myths of life -- right up there with 'I'm from the government. I'm here to help.' "

June 26: Yet another change from the State Department, although not a big one: You can no longer access your proof of passport application by your passport locater number. (Thanks to Modern Agent for that tip.) If you go to travel.state.gov and click on "Click here for proof of passport," you'll find this note under "To check the status of your application online you will need:"

"The application locator number, if you have it available. NOTE: Use of the application locator number has been temporarily suspended. Please input your last name, date of birth, and last four digits of your Social Security Number once you click on the link below."

June 27: Some good news for one of our readers. Judith Kopf of Santa Barbara, who had applied for her passport on April 5 and whose trials were detailed in the On the Spot column of June 24, received her passport Tuesday by Federal Express.

She had turned to her congresswoman, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) last week after the State Department website, www.travel.state.gov, failed to provide the proof she needed on her upcoming trip to Canada.

Representatives have been deluged with calls asking for passport help. If you do not know who your congressional representative is, go to www.house.gov/writerep.

June 28: If you're a consular officer, guess what you can do on your summer vacation? You can go to New Hampshire. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it is a lovely state and Portsmouth (that's their destination) is said to be a historic port town, where the average high in July and August is 83 and 81, respectively.

Alas, it won't be all skittles and beer for the consular officers. No, the State Department has asked for 100 volunteers to help clear up the backlog of 3 million passports, which it says it hopes to have addressed by the end of September.

In a cable to consular officers, Undersecretary of State Henrietta Fore asked that they volunteer to spend their summer vacations working at one of the passport centers, including the New Hampshire office, the Associated Press reported. State would pay travel and per diem costs for the extra help.

If those officers worked four weeks (regular 40-hour week), they could clear 388,000 passports. At the Government Services Administration per diem of $165 for Portsmouth , the cost of housing and feeding them would run close to $500,000, and that doesn't include their airfare. If they have to fly longer than 14 hours, they get to ride in business class. A quick check shows that a business-class ticket on US Airways to Boston from, say, Lagos, Nigeria, leaving Aug. 1 and returning Sept. 1, will run $7,988 (although you can knock about $3,000 off that by being flexible on travel times).

And that doesn't even begin to account for the reduced service that you'll get in a consular office abroad if everyone is home working on getting passports out.

June 29: Vitalchek comes through -- for my mom. Just a week ago, a tip from a blog, http://whirledview.typepad.com/whirledview/2007/05/the_erratic_sta.html, suggested using a birth certificate, procurement company, www.vitalchek.com.

I applied for one for myself from Onondaga County, N.Y., and, for comparison, one for my mom, who was born in Pawnee County, Kan.

Hers was waiting for me when I got home last night -- less than a week from the time I ordered it to its arrival here. The order included both her original birth certificate and a copy of the affidavit that corrected it. (Seems that when my mother was born, her mother, who was 40 and had eight other children, was so exhausted that she couldn't think of a proper name so she told the doctor to write in any old name. My mom was surprised to discover, at the age of 24, that her legal name wasn't Genevieve but Pollyanne. Her brother, a lawyer, helped her execute the affidavit of correction.)

Vitalchek didn't charge extra for the additional document. For $21, this seems like great service.

July 2: Reader David Marchand of Newport Beach has had his own passport frustrations. After reading the On the Spot column on June 24, he wrote this note:

"Your article on the second page of the travel section omitted a critical piece of information: If you can't get an appointment within two weeks of your travel departure (and as you correctly stated, it is almost impossible to do so), then go 48 hours before your departure and you will (probably) be allowed to process your passport without an appointment.

"I say 'probably' because the supervisor at times was limiting immediate processing to those who left within 24 hours.

"This advice would have saved me one and maybe two trips down to the LA passport office."

Marchand's experience stems from a passport renewal he filed in February for a trip departing May 19.

"This was before any reports of processing delays," he said. The State Department website, www.travel.state.gov, had no record of his renewal, so he gathered his documents and tried to get an appointment. No dice.

A week before departure, he showed up at the passport office at 11000 Wilshire Blvd. and was turned away. He returned 48 hours before departure, and, he said, was about to be turned away again but got in and got his passport.


Discuss your passport experiences and dilemmas, then solicit advice from L.A. Times experts and fellow travelers on our Travel Message Boards.


"I probably spent a total of six to eight hours at the passport office and another 12 hours driving back and forth."

LATEST UPDATEJuly 3: A story in Monday’s Washington Post, by Andrea Sachs, profiled several people waiting in line to get their passports. One was there because his name had been misspelled on his passport.

In a recent conversation with Colin Walle, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998 and himself a passport adjudicator, he criticized the quality of data entry done by an outside contractor.

In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles area writer James Gilden wrote, “Travelers can go online and fill out their own applications (www.travel.state.gov, click on "passports" then "applications and forms"), thus eliminating one potential source of input error, assuming you don't make any mistakes on your own information. Or so you'd think.

"If printed out and taken directly to a passport agency, the bar code on the application can be scanned and the information is downloaded directly into the agency's database. But if it is mailed in, the contractor hired to input the data, Citigroup, cannot scan the bar code and must rekey all the data, opening the door for input errors.

“The government says it's on the case, but a State Department spokesman wouldn't comment on why the contractor was not required to be able to process the bar code data to begin with.”

So a word to the wise: When you get your passport, check it carefully and make sure your information is correct. If there’s an error, call (877) 487-2778 and ask what to do next.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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