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LAX speeds up customs process with passport scanners

LAX speeds up customs process with passport scanners
Passengers at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX use the new automated passport-control kiosks that can read passports and customs declarations to expedite entry. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Much the way some supermarket shoppers go through self-service checkout lines, foreign travelers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday began passing through automated kiosks that scanned their passports and customs information.

The devices, unveiled by LAX and federal officials, are expected to streamline the process of entering the United States and reduce the long waits that airline passengers can encounter after arriving on international flights.

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Because travelers do their own data-entry and screening times are reduced an estimated 30%, officials say the kiosks will also free up customs and immigration officers for other enforcement and security duties.

Airport officials opened 40 automated kiosks in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which handled more than 9.1 million passengers last year. Ten kiosks also have been installed by Delta Air Lines in Terminal 5 and there are plans to put the devices in Terminal 2, home to several international carriers.

The kiosks, which cost $36,000 each, process passport information and items purchased abroad that would have to be declared to customs officials on written forms filled out by passengers.

"It's very nice," Manteca resident Pam Shelton said Wednesday as she arrived at LAX from Australia. "Once you figured it out, it was easy to do. It's definitely a lot faster."

With instructions in 13 languages, the automated systems read passports, take fingerprints of non-U.S. citizens and photograph travelers. Items to be declared must be typed into the kiosk.

The person's identification and biometrics are then fed into a federal enforcement database. After the information is processed, passengers receive a receipt that must be presented for verification to an immigration officer who may ask the person questions about their trip.

Federal officials estimate that using the kiosk should take no longer than 90 seconds.

During the start-up period, airport officials said U.S. citizens experienced an average reduction in wait times of 39%, while travelers holding foreign passports averaged an 18% reduction.

"I used these coming back from a recent trade mission," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said during a news conference to announce the new kiosks. "I saw how easy they are, how convenient they are and how next-century they are."

Including LAX, 23 airports in the U.S. and Canada now have the automated kiosks. Those eligible to use the devices are U.S. and Canadian citizens as well as travelers from 38 nations in the U.S. visa waiver program who are also registered with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Todd Hoffman, the agency's LAX port director, said the kiosks will not compromise security because officers still can assess and question passengers when they verify kiosk receipts.

Although LAX has had shortages of customs and immigration officers in the past, Hoffman said 60 officers will be added in the months ahead and the kiosks will increase the efficiency of the existing staff.

LAX officials say the kiosks are needed to handle the increasing demand for air travel at the nation's third-busiest airport. They expect a record 19 million international passengers this year at all terminals that handle foreign flights.

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