SEA-TAC INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Wash. - Growth in international travel at Sea-Tac Airport runs around 10 percent a year and growing. That’s more than double the national average. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection says its budget is not growing. The question: How to get more passengers entering the United States through the airport through immigration and customs without longer lines?
Lines at Sea-Tac can be pretty bad and the airport often has to hold passengers on planes until earlier flights clear. It’s considered worse during high tourist season during the summer months, and year round the customs crush happens in the middle of the day when flights from Korea, China, Dubai and others arrive within a very short time window.
Now, the airport and customs officials think they have a solution to cut that line by at least half - let the passenger do most of the work of clearing customs on their own. An APP may be off a while, but now 14 kiosks are in place instead of many of the traditional booths manned by an immigration officer.
“You save about 50 percent of the time in the processing,” said Michele M. James, Director of field operations for the Seattle field office for Customs and Border Protection.
The kiosks increase the number of stations available. James says it typically takes about 90 seconds for the interaction between an immigration officer and a passenger entering the U.S.
Use of the kiosk is voluntary, but travelers taking advantage of this new option no longer have to fill out those paper arrival cards. Questions like “Did you visit a farm?” on your trip are now answered at the kiosk.
To start, a passenger inserts his/her passport page and sees that image come up on the screen; then the machine takes another picture of the passenger At the end a receipt is printed out.
CBP officers are still involved, with a shorter period of questioning with that receipt in hand and fewer officers required. It is that continued human interaction with officers that is designed to detect terrorists and drug smugglers as usual.
But not everyone qualifies. U.S. passport holders can use the kiosks, along with Canadian visitors. The idea is that citizens of some other countries will eventually be able to use it as well.
The Port of Seattle picked up the $2 million cost of the machines and their installation. The port is also planning a major expansion of its international arrival hall to accommodate demand that’s expected to continue growing.
Sea-Tac is the fifth U.S. airport using the kiosks, along with Chicago, Dallas-FortWorth, Miami and JFK in New York. Canadian airports including Vancouver, B.C, Toronto and Montreal also use them. The Canadian connection is a big one, since the Vancouver International Airport conducted the initial trials.