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Editorial: JFK's unwelcome welcome to international fliers

With the shuttered Terminal 3 in the background,

With the shuttered Terminal 3 in the background, a Delta customer waits for a flight at JFK's and Delta's Terminal 4. (June 11, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

It takes road weary international travelers longer to slog through customs at Kennedy Airport than at any other airport in the nation. The 36-minute average wait for millions of people passing through Terminal 4 is a distinction New York doesn't need.

At 31 minutes, the wait at Los Angeles International Airport is only a bit better. according to Customs and Border Protection data cited by Global Gateway Alliance, a regional watchdog group. It's a lot worse than the 23 minutes at Chicago's O'Hare, or the 16 minutes at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson. And it's eight minutes worse than just a year ago at JFK.

Federal budget cuts have forced a reduction in the number of customs agents at the nation's airports. But that doesn't explain why the wait at JFK is the nation's longest. Customs officials said they're trying to automate travel documents, integrate mobile technology and work with carriers and airport authorities to improve the intolerable lines without compromising border security.

Unfortunately, a long wait to clear customs is just one item in the litany of woe that afflicts the region's air travelers, both foreign and domestic. Terminals at JFK and LaGuardia have seen better days, and both rank in the bottom half of the nation's major airports in both on-time arrivals and departures.

Delta Air Lines opened a new terminal at Kennedy in May. It replaces the iconic, saucer-shaped Pan Am terminal that is being demolished. At LaGuardia, a request for proposals will go out soon for major renovations slated to begin next year. And the full deployment of the satellite-based NextGen air traffic control technology, targeted for 2018, should mean fewer flight delays. Clearer signs and improved public transportation options would help as well.

But travelers navigating customs at Kennedy need relief now. Their first New York experience shouldn't be standing in an interminable line.