Passport woes foiling travel plans abroad

By Mary Garrigan, Journal staff

A new mega-processing passport center capable of producing 10 million of the travel documents annually opens in Arkansas in April, but it comes two months too late to save the Mexican vacation plans of one Hill City family.

Jeff Parker of Rapid City talks with Carole Coon about the waiting period for passports Wednesday afternoon at the Post Office in Rapid City. The current waiting period for U.S. passports is 10 to 12 weeks.

“We wanted to take the kids to Mexico,” Bill Kilcoin said last week of his family’s planned March 10 vacation to Puerto Vallarta that had to be postponed and rescheduled when high demand for U.S. passports left three of their seven-member vacation party without the necessary travel documents.

The number of Americans applying for passports has increased dramatically since Congress passed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, an anti-terrorism measure which requires that Americans have passports to re-enter the country when they travel by air from Mexico or Canada. People may still travel to those countries by car or cruise ship without a passport, but in 2008 that will change, too, according to local travel agent Jeanie Peterson of AAA Travel.

A deluge of applications that began in January and continues through April as college students made plans for spring break and tourists gear up for the summer travel season is causing unprecedented delays in the processing time.

“It’s taking up to 12 weeks to get a passport, and the closer we get to summer, the worse it may get,” Peterson said. “Expediting it still takes two weeks or more. We used to get them in three to four days.”

The State Department tells travelers to allow eight to 10 weeks for routine processing, and three to four weeks for expedited processing. Passport guidelines used to advise a six-week or two-week wait, depending on the processing fee paid.

The application fee for a new passport for ages 16 and older is $97. It is good for 10 years. The fee to expedite service is an additional $60, plus delivery fees.

Paying the extra expediting fee did not help the Kilcoins with their passport problems.
Bill and Linda Kilcoin got the first passports of their lives issued in January after only a 10-day wait, in plenty of time for a trip to Jamaica. But when they sent in passport applications on Feb. 9 for their children and granddaughter who they wanted to take to Mexico, they ran into bottlenecks in the system.

With a March 10 departure date looming and no passports in sight, the Kilcoins were advised by the Seattle passport agency to reapply for expedited passports. “A guy there said he would hand carry the applications where they needed to go and have them back to us in 48 hours,” Kilcoin said.

They did as instructed, and also rescheduled their airline reservations for a later date, at a cost of $150 per ticket for seven people. Then they waited for the missing documents to arrive in the mail.

“We got to know the night clerks and staff at the post office passport office very well,” said Kilcoin. “They were just bending over backward to get us our passports. The Rapid City post office was really very helpful.”

Despite the expedited processing, the documents still did not arrive in time for a March 12 flight.
“We got the passports on March 14,” Kilcoin said. “There must have been a hell of an influx in February, with everybody looking to go on spring break. They had to have just got swamped.”

Kilcoin said the Seattle passport agency blamed the bottleneck on a Los Angeles bank that has the contract to handle the checks and fees, but he thinks the State Department should not make new passport rules unless it can handle the resulting influx.

“Uncle Sam’s saying, ‘It ain’t our fault.” They can blame a private contractor for the bottleneck,” he said.

To handle demand, the National Passport Center is operating 24 hours per day in three shifts, and its 16 passport agencies are all working overtime. The NPC has hired more than 250 passport adjudicators in the last two years, and will hire an additional 86 this year. In March, 49 new adjudicators joined the staff. The new Arkansas facility is expected to alleviate backlogs.

Peterson predicts passport headaches will continue for the next year or two, as passports become routine for Americans. So many Americans drive across borders for recreation or medical reasons and, eventually, everyone will need a passport. “It’s coming. One day, all Americans will have a passport, just like Europeans do,” she said.

As peak travel times approach, Peterson warned that “this is only going to get worse” and advises travelers to plan ahead. The increased volume also increases the chance for human errors on the documents.

“When you get your passport back, we’re telling people to check everything on it to be sure it is correct,” she said. One female customer found her passport listed her gender as male.

Passport delays have not scared people away from travel, however.

“Our business is way up this year,” Peterson said.

The Kilcoins still plan to cross the border.

Despite the aggravation and expense of paying more money for a shorter vacation, the Kilcoin family is heading to Puerto Vallarta on April 6.

Have passport, will travel.

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