Outraged by long immigration inspection delays at the nation’s international air terminals--including a recent five-hour wait at Los Angeles International Airport--airport and airline officials Wednesday urged the government to take steps to finance the hiring of additional inspection officers.
A key component of their five-point plan is to persuade Congress to change the law that now exempts passengers arriving from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean from paying a $5 user fee. That change would generate about $80 million a year to pay for more inspectors.
In addition, the officials said Congress should legislate that INS inspections should take no more than 45 minutes, as decreed by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Other steps would include reducing paper work and expanding pre-inspection procedures in which some inspectors work out of foreign airports.
“This summer, airline passengers have routinely waited more than two hours to clear customs and immigration at 15 major international gateways across the United States,” said Robert J. Aaronson, president of the Air Transport Assn. ATA is a trade organization of carriers and airport executives.
“We think it is disgraceful that it takes the government that much time to process incoming airline passengers.”
Aaronson and other executives said at a news conference that they have no data to support their claims of long waits at most of the nation’s major international terminals. They did, however, cite a long list of anecdotal horror stories about foreign tourists, already exhausted from long flights, being forced to sit another hour or more on the plane because there was no room at the customs and immigration gates.
Citing a particularly “incredible” delay on Sunday at LAX, Aaronson said 250 passengers arriving on a Swiss Air DC-10 were stalled at the airport gate for five hours because immigration checkpoints were not staffed to handle the crowd.
“That’s some welcome mat for the millions of tourists who visit our country each year,” Aaronson said, fretting that such delays may inhibit visits by foreigners.
The experience of American citizens returning through airport terminals such as LAX is markedly different from that of foreign visitors. Upon showing passports, Americans are ushered past immigration checkpoints and are stopped only selectively by customs officials. Foreigners must be cleared by immigration, which includes the processing of three visa-related documents. They may also be more closely screened by customs officials.
Clifton Moore, executive director at LAX, said he was not aware of Sunday’s delay, but added that he is not surprised because delays of two and three hours are common. “We’ve been upset about it for quite some time,” he said. “The problem is with (INS) staffing. They’re not using all of their primary processing locations. I suspect there’s not the money to pay for more staffing.”
Duke Austin, an INS spokesman, said the government recognizes that lengthy delays are a problem and is trying to do a better job.
“We’ve done a lot,” he said. “We went from a staff of 557 in 1986 to 1,475 today.” With the estimated $80 million generated by charging passengers from North American and Caribbean countries a user fee, the INS could hire about 450 more inspectors, he said.
The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX handles most of the airport’s 70 daily international flights, processing more than 15,000 passengers arriving at a rate of up to 2,400 per hour, according to figures supplied by the transport association.
INS officials, however, routinely staff only 15 to 20 of LAX’s 68 available inspection booths, expanding that to about 35 booths at peak arrival times.
Austin said there is “some merit” in extending the user fee to visitors from exempt areas, but he questioned the willingness of lawmakers to impose the charge. INS expects to collect about $114 million in foreign user fees in fiscal 1990, but that figure is subject to change depending on traffic flow, Austin said.
But even with more inspectors, problems would remain, he added. Some airports have enough inspectors but not enough booths; others have the space, but not enough inspectors.
As a practical short-term solution, the nation’s international airlines and airport operators should do a better job of scheduling incoming flights in non-peak periods to avoid crowds at the INS inspection checkpoints, Austin said.