Self-serve kiosks streamline customs at Kennedy Airport

Traveler Liza Leach, of Boston, left, uses an Traveler Liza Leach, of Boston, left, uses an Automatic Passport Control kiosk at JFK's Terminal 4 after arriving from France on Nov. 18, 2013. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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The "terrible" lines of travelers waiting to pass through customs at Kennedy Airport are shrinking, and business groups encouraged by the change want to expand use of the technology behind the trend.

At two of Kennedy's terminals with international flights, arriving passengers now go directly to self-serve kiosks. They slide their passport into a scanner, answer some questions electronically and are quickly presented with a clearance ticket.

That stands in stark contrast to the current system, which can create lines up to several hours long, airport officials say.

"What we were finding is the processing really was a bottleneck for us," said Patricia Ornst, Delta Air Line's director of state and local government affairs in New York. "Passengers as they were coming off planes were having just to wait in these terrible, long lines."

The amount of time the average traveler spent clearing customs at Kennedy used to be the highest among the nation's top five international hubs, officials said.

But the average customs wait at the New York City airport has dropped by more than 10 minutes compared with a year ago, and the kiosks -- though currently limited to two terminals, and to U.S. and Canadian passport holders -- are getting much of the credit.

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Business and travel groups want to bring the timesaving kiosks to two other terminals with international flights at Kennedy and at Newark's Terminal B.

Forty kiosks have been operating at Kennedy's newly remodeled Terminal 4 since October, and 16 more were installed at Terminal 1 in January. Airlines covered the costs, which elsewhere have averaged about $65,000 per kiosk.

Average wait times at Terminal 4 have been cut in half, dropping from 36 minutes to 17 from February 2013 to February 2014, according to a study using U.S. Customs data.

"There is a very positive reaction to the installation to the limited extent that it exists now," said Kathy Wylde, president of Partnership for NYC, a business leadership group.

Wylde and Global Gateway Alliance, a travelers advocacy group, blame long customs wait times for missed connections and frayed nerves.

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"Airport delays are a huge frustration for business and a high cost to both airlines and customers," Wylde said. "The New York City airports are our primary global gateway, and the impression that people come away with is that we are not efficient."

The Port Authority plans to introduce the kiosks at Newark, and airlines are considering expanding use at Kennedy, an agency spokesman said. Further details were not available.

The kiosks scan a flier's passport and take his or her photo. Passengers answer customs declarations questions using a touch screen, and move on to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent for final processing.

"You're still seeing an officer, but it reduces the administrative part of the officer's responsibility and allows them to focus in more on the immigration detail," a customs spokesman said. "They've reduced the wait times fairly significantly already."

Similar kiosks are operating in other international airports, including Vancouver, Chicago, Dallas, Montreal, Miami, Toronto, Houston, Seattle and Orlando, Fla.

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The average customs wait times at locations with automated passport kiosks was reduced by 22 minutes in December 2013 compared with the same period a year earlier, even though air travel increased by 8 percent, according to customs.

In a few weeks, the Kennedy kiosks will be available to passport holders from all 37 countries in the U.S. visa waiver program, officials said. The waiver allows travel for tourism or business without a visa.

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