U.S. Customs and Border Protection is expanding screening tech to keep up with ever-growing post-pandemic flood of passengers

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A Belgian family of four was on their fourth trip to the United States. They were dreading the long passport control line after entering the country but heard about a new app they could use to cut their way through the country and decided to give it a shot. Within minutes, they bypassed the long line at Washington Dulles International Airport and were waiting for their luggage.

“It was always a long line,” said Piet De Staercke of the line to get a passport. He, his wife and two sons were visiting Washington and Chicago. “We were a little scared. But now with this program, it’s amazing. “

As the journey continues Following the pandemic-related fallout, US Customs and Border Protection is increasing the use of technology such as the Mobile Passport Control program that the De Staercke family used to try to manage the number of people traveling around the world. And with events like a a rare eclipseand The Olympic Games in Paris, and the summer holidays are still driving international travel, these numbers don’t seem to be going down any time soon.

Customs and Border Protection officials gave The Associated Press a behind-the-scenes look at the technologies they’ve been using and what to expect in the coming months and years.

Numbers

In 2023, the agency handled more than 394 million passengers at ports of entry. That’s a 24% increase over last year. If you look at the top 20 in the country airports with the increase in passengers, officers processed 31% more passengers while waiting times increased by 11%. And at some of the busiest airports, waiting times have been increasing or decreasing. At New York’s JFK airport, for example, wait times dropped — by 0.4 of a second on average — while CBP processed more than 33%.

More and more, people are traveling abroad with their families instead of just going abroad for business.

Other programs

Authorities are increasingly moving to software-based technologies to fast track through the airport. The Mobile Passport Control app used by a Belgian family is one example. It is available to US citizens, as well as to authorized citizens, other Canadians and travelers from participating countries Visa Waiver Program who has already visited the US once.

Travelers upload their photos and information to the app. When they enter the viewing area, they are directed to another line. The officer only needs to take a photo of one member of the family and pulls the photos and information of the whole group.

CBP launched the app in 2021 but is now trying to get more people to use it, including working with airlines to allow the app to be downloaded while the plane is in flight and posting signs at airports to let travelers know about it. Last year, more than 4.1 million people came to the country using the program.

“Every second we can save, it saves time because it adds up,” said Marc Calixte, CBP director at Dulles.

Last September, the agency also created a program for passengers using Global Entry. This is one of CBP’s programs that allows certain low-risk individuals who undergo an interview and background check to expedite transit and passport upon arrival in the US.

Additional information on international entry

Last year, 3.2 million people used the Global Entry program, and this year the agency is overseeing about 4 million applications, said Brendan Blackmer, director of CBP’s Trusted Traveler Programs division. But travelers have complained about how long it takes for forms to be processed and how difficult it is for them to find time. On its website, CBP says it takes four to six months to process. In February, 17 members of Congress wrote to CBP wanting to know more, saying they get complaints from people they have during the wait.

Blackmer said the agency has worked hard to improve the service, including allowing nearly 100% of people to do so without entering a registration center. This frees up deadlines for first-time applicants. And it’s forcing many people to complete the process while at the airport, either when departing or returning from a trip.

There are still plenty of candidates available, Blackmer said, although some cities like San Francisco are still seeing such high demand that appointments can take more than 90 days to become available.

“We have done a lot of work in the last year and a half, and the organization is in a better place and is able to meet the requirements of the program. And we’re going to keep working,” Blackmer said.

Salary increases

Come Oct. 1, users of the Trusted Travel Program will see an increase in the fees they pay. The cost of NEXUS, a US-Canada program designed to reduce travel between the two countries for pre-approved travelers, will range from $50 to $120. International Entry goes from $100 to $120. SENTRI, for travelers already approved at the southern border with Mexico, will drop, from $122.50 to $120.

But the fee will now cover all children under the age of 18 regardless of the program you are in.

What has not changed is that the approval of these programs will remain good for five years.

What’s next?

Calixte said that maybe by the end of the summer the airport will open the so-called E-Gates where passengers who use Global Entry can use the program, pass through the security guard, and instead go to the gate where their photo is taken and compared to their passport, and, assuming no red flags are raised, the gates are opened and they walk out of the checkpoint with a passport and are on their way.

Beyond that, Mr Blackmer said the agency is looking at a concept called smart queuing, where the app assigns passengers specific queues based on what they enter into the app, such as if they have luggage to declare.

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