At the same time that CBP was focusing on biometrics, the agency was developing technology that would expedite the processing of travelers and reduce wait times in airports. Air travel was growing, and by all indications, that trend would continue. According to the International Air Transport Association’s latest projections, air travelers will double over the next 20 years.
In 2007, when CBP introduced Global Entry, it was an innovative concept because it was directed at low-risk travelers. “Global Entry was designed to give low-risk, frequent travelers the ability to use technology to expedite their arrival process,” said Dan Tanciar, CBP’s deputy executive director of planning, program analysis, and evaluation for entry/exit transformation. “The program allowed us to identify low-risk travelers, so that we could focus our attention on the travelers we don’t know much about.”
A few years later, in 2012, CBP launched another innovation—a self-service kiosk that helped speed up the traveler inspection process. The kiosks, known as Automated Passport Control, performed the administrative steps that CBP officers had traditionally handled, so that officers could focus more on inspections. The kiosks also enabled CBP to do away with paper forms, allowing travelers to submit their declaration and biographic information electronically. “Within two years, we were able to deploy about 1,500 kiosks at all of the top airports throughout the U.S. and we reduced wait times by about 30 to 35 percent,” said Tanciar. “The Automated Passport Control kiosks shortened the amount of time travelers spent with CBP officers from 3 minutes to 30 to 60 seconds.”
With CBP’s staffing limitations, the success of the technology was paramount. Not just for CBP, but for its air industry partners too. “Airports are economic generators for their communities, so if you reduce the capacity of the airport, in effect, you’re reducing the economic capabilities of the airport for its community,” said Matthew Cornelius, vice president of air policy for Airports Council International-North America, a trade organization that represents airports in North America.
In 2013, when the Automated Passport Control kiosks were starting to appear at U.S. airports, Airports Council International saw the value of the technology and wanted to expand it. “We were approached by one of our associate member companies, Airside Mobile, a tech firm, that had a concept to create the same functionality of the kiosks, but to do it on a smart phone,” said Cornelius. In other words, international travelers could fill out the required customs information on their smart phones before they ever got off the plane. “We saw it as an opportunity to alleviate some of the problems our members were having at their international arrival facilities. We knew that mobile applications and mobile technology are really the wave of the future.”
Cornelius took the concept to CBP. “We told CBP, ‘We have this idea. We think it’s going to be helpful. Will you work with us on it?’ To CBP’s credit, they saw it made sense, that it was going to help us do our jobs better and alleviate the problem of processing travelers into the U.S.,” said Cornelius.
CBP and Airports Council International began piloting the Mobile Passport Control app in August 2014. A year later, the pilot expanded to five airports. Today, 24 airports and one cruise port use the app and it has been downloaded more than 2.4 million times.
“It’s a great example of partnership. We worked very closely with CBP,” said Cornelius. “Everybody was on board, understood what needed to be done, and it all came together perfectly.”
The technology was also critical for the airlines. “In early 2014, we knew the World Cup was being played in Brazil that year, so that meant there would be a lot of travel through Miami,” said Howard Kass, American Airlines’ vice president of regulatory affairs. “We knew that the processing times and the facilitation in Miami weren’t what we wanted them to be. It wasn’t a good customer experience,” he said.
“The lines were long. There were multi-hour waits, and we felt the brunt of it because when travelers landed, they couldn’t move through customs, so they misconnected on their flights,” said Kass. “We then had to figure out how to get them to their destinations or put them up in a hotel. We spent lots of money to ameliorate the misconnections. Miami was getting a bad reputation among travelers, which is something we don’t want to see at any of our hubs.”
The airline thought CBP’s technology might be the answer. “We knew from what we’d seen in other airports that the machines would be a tremendous benefit in Miami to help expedite people through the process,” said Kass. So American Airlines worked with CBP and the Miami International Airport to get more Global Entry and Automated Passport Control machines in place. “We more than doubled the number of machines and we did a lot of marketing, advertising, and inflight announcements to encourage passengers to use the technology, so they could be processed quickly through the CBP facility,” said Kass.
And it worked. “We got to a point where every U.S. citizen was using some kind of automation,” he said. “CBP pledged a lot of resources to make sure that flights were processed smoothly during the World Cup. It was important to the United States that there wasn’t a rough spot in Miami with all the traffic moving through.” Moreover, said Kass, “There weren’t any meltdowns or passengers stranded for hours and hours in the terminal and we made some improvements that really helped travelers move through the process more quickly.”