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Excruciating: Travelers wait 2-3 hours in airport immigration lines

SF Gate logo SF Gate 5/16/2019 Chris McGinnis
a group of people waiting for their luggage at an airport: Hundreds, if not thousands, of travelers forced to stand in line for two hours to enter the US at SFO immigration © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Hundreds, if not thousands, of travelers forced to stand in line for two hours to enter the US at SFO immigration

In early May, frequent traveler Nancy Brown took a very long-haul flight to the U.S. from South Africa. Her journey started in Cape Town, connected in Amsterdam and ended at San Francisco International. Total time in transit was about 24 hours. Phew!

Little did she know what awaited when she got off the plane and started walking down the long corridor toward immigration and customs. Brown, who is from the United Kingdom, works in communications in San Francisco and travels internationally about five times per year said, "As I walked, I saw an almighty queue that extended well into the corridor before the arrivals hall. I've seen lines at SFO immigration before, but nothing like this one."

So she pulled out a book to read and joined the line for non-U.S. passport holders, had her interview with a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer, searched for and eventually found her checked bag from a pile in baggage claim, and finally made it to the airport curb more than three hours after landing. "The plane landed at 2:30 pm, and looking at my Uber receipt now. I was picked up at 5:50 pm, so just over three hours," she said.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Immigration official at SFO say that the lines are now like this nearly every afternoon. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Immigration official at SFO say that the lines are now like this nearly every afternoon.

Wow. Imagine that. Flying into SFO after 24 hours in transit, and then being forced to wait another three hours at the airport along with thousands of other visitors in the same excruciating situation. What a welcome.

Matthew Klint, who writes the popular Live and Let's Fly blog witnessed a similar situation at SFO immigration on his way back to LAX from Germany in early May. Like Brown, he noted that the longest line was for foreign visitors who were "clearly agitated" and on their phones trying to reschedule flights and taking pictures of the mess.  He asked a staffer trying to manage the lines if this was normal, and was told "it's like this every afternoon."

Customs officers are being reassigned from airprots to the southwestern border. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Customs officers are being reassigned from airprots to the southwestern border.

The scene irked him, and he wrote, "These are people coming to the United States to visit family or friends and spend money. We should be ashamed...No one should have to wait several hours to get through an immigration line... This is in my country and my state. I am so embarrassed." (See Matthew's photos of the line at the top of this post.)

Customs and Border Protection says that it sees no recent anomaly in line length and that SFO is "always super busy" according to a spokesperson. He added that the situation at airport immigration halls is very fluid, and with the agency's limited resources, it is sometimes impossible to avoid back ups when planes are late, which causes staffing issues. He also noted that San Francisco has added many new international flights over the last few years, compounding the problem.

"Currently, CBP has temporarily reassigned 731 CBP officers from ports around the nation to Border Patrol sectors where apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied children from Central America have overwhelmed Border Patrol capabilities and facilities. This includes CBP officers from ports, seaports, and airports in order to lessen the impact at any one particular port of entry. Travelers are urged to plan accordingly and check the CBP wait times page for the most up-to-date border crossing information." -CBP spokesperson

SFO has arrivals halls on both the A and G sides of the international terminal. Wait times on the A-side are worst between about 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. On the G-side (United and Star Alliance airlines) wait times peak 5-9 a.m. and again from 1-6 p.m. At peak times, five or more jumbo aircraft can unload at once (on both sides) if there are delays.

Immigration official at SFO say that the lines are now like this nearly every afternoon. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Immigration official at SFO say that the lines are now like this nearly every afternoon.

To remedy the situation, CBP is hiring aggressively across the country, according to the spokesperson, but it takes time to train new officers.  (Checking the CBP careers website, starting salary for a CBP officer starts at $43,000 but rises to over $100,000 in about four years.)

a group of people waiting for their luggage at an airport: Note the the longest waits are for non-US passport holders. Mobile passport and Global Entry lines are almost non existent. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Note the the longest waits are for non-US passport holders. Mobile passport and Global Entry lines are almost non existent.

This is not something that's happening only at San Francisco International-- its happening at airports across the country, such as Atlanta, which had a meltdown last month. The lengthy delays are catching travelers by surprise, forcing missed flight connections, and hassles for friends and family waiting to pick up arriving international passengers.

a group of people standing in a room: Travelers hand over documents to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Travelers hand over documents to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

"This is a real problem across the country. International travel to the U.S. is a huge economic engine for the entire country and making people feel unwelcome and unappreciated upon arrival threatens our national economy. We hope that Washington prioritizes finding solutions immediately," said the  Joe D'Alessandro, the CEO of SF Travel, San Francisco's convention and visitors bureau.

The problem is that it's only May, the middle of the slower "shoulder" season of relatively low demand. What's going to happen when we hit peak season later this summer? I can only imagine.

Luckily, U.S. passport holders have options to get around the mess with programs like Mobile Passport and Global Entry, but that's not the case for the non-U.S. passport crowd-- yes, those people who are coming to see America and spend money and go back to tell all their friends about it.

a man standing in front of a crowd: You can speed through airport customs and immigration with the new Mobile Passport app-- download it now! © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

You can speed through airport customs and immigration with the new Mobile Passport app-- download it now!

In response to all this,  a coalition of six leading U.S. travel organizations this week sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to approve more funding for CBP activities – especially staffing up their airport operations as a busy summer looms.

"While understandable, a 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' staffing paradigm is unsustainable," the travel groups told the Senators. "The traveling and shipping public should not be subjected to excessive wait times, and we need to avoid inflicting damage on commerce and the overall U.S. economy."

Unless Congress approves emergency funding, the groups said, CBP's budget might not be enough as the summer travel season approaches, starting on Memorial Day weekend.

"CBP staffing levels already fall well short of the agency's workload staffing model," the letter said. "With international travel increasing at a steady rate, lack of sufficient CBP officer staffing at airports due to temporary reassignment, compounded with lack of overtime funding, will certainly put considerable strain on CBP ports, harming both passengers and cargo throughput."


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Chris McGinnis is the founder of TravelSkills.com. The author is solely responsible for the content above, and it is used here by permission. You can reach Chris at chris@travelskills.com or on Twitter @cjmcginnis.


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