Delays

Automated passport control machines speed up travel

Passport Kiosks ready to go at JFK_courtesy Delta Air Lines

Courtesy Delta Air Lines

On Monday, arriving U.S. passengers from international flights at JFK International Airport’s Terminal 4 began using automated passport machines to speed their trip through customs.

Similar self-service machines already in use at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Terminal 5, and at two airports in Canada (Vancouver and Montreal) are already helping to significantly cut down wait times at customs that, at times, have forced arriving international passengers to stand in line for up to five hours or to be held back on a plane.

JFK is the busiest U.S. entry point for international travelers, and 40 automated passport kiosks have been purchased by Delta for use in Terminal 4, where it is the largest tenant among more than 30 airlines. At JFK, only U.S. citizens will initially be able to use the machines, but soon Canadian citizens should be able to use the machines as well.

Delta would like the Custom and Border Protection agency to increase staffing and improve scheduling to accommodate peak arrival times. “But we don’t know how long that will take,” said Delta spokeswoman Leslie Scott. “This is something proactive we can do now as an investment in the customer experience. Because if a passenger has enjoyed the in-flight meals, the lie-flat bed and other aspects of an international flight having to stand on line for hours on arrival really ruins the experience.”

ORD KIOSKS

Courtesy Chicago O’Hare International Airport

According to the Chicago Department of Aviation, since July 1, when the automated passport control technology was rolled out at O’Hare Airport’s Terminal 5, daily passenger volume has increased by 21 percent, to over 15,000, but wait times during peak arrival periods have been reduced by 33 percent.

The number of passengers waiting over 60 minutes per day at O’Hare has been reduced by nearly 60 percent, and the number of passengers waiting for over two hours has been eliminated almost entirely. The number of passengers missing their connecting flights has been drastically reduced as well.

At O’Hare, only U.S. citizens could initially use the kiosks, but this month the program was expanded to include Canadian citizens as well.

(O’Hare also has another program in place that gets people through customs quicker: in International Terminal 5 a program called “1-Stop” is available to arriving passengers with proper documentation and only carry-on luggage.)

Several vendors, including the Vancouver Airport Authority, IBM and SITA, make and market the technology and the hardware, which will be rolled out at several other airports in North America in the next few months.

Machines made by SITA at Orlando International “are deployed but not yet in use,” said SITA’s Sean Farrell. “We’re just waiting for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to certify the system, but right now that agency is on furlough.”

Toronto Pearson plans to launch its automated passport control kiosks, being built by IBM, in mid-November.

Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport has 20 kiosks that should be operational by the end of the year.

On its own, Dallas/Fort Worth International is developing and building 30 automated passport reading kiosks that should be up and running by early November.

And 36 automated passport machines, purchased at a cost of $3.5 million by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, will be installed in November at Miami International.

“It’s pretty well documented that we’ve had challenges in our international arrivals area,” said Miami’s airport spokesman Greg Chin. “Our peak waiting times have been as much as two to three hours, and this is one of the ways we’re trying to mitigate the challenges.”

Visitor makeup is 70 percent U.S. citizens at O’Hare versus 70 percent non-U.S. visitors at MIA, said Chin, “And because U.S. citizens are easier to process, we don’t think our reduction will match [O’Hare’s] 30 percent but we hope to at least approach that.”

(A slightly different version of this story first appeared on CNBC Road Warrior. This is an updated version.)

Surprised by Santa at Munich Airport

While I’ve had my share of long waits,  I’ve thankfully never been one of those passengers held hostage for hours on end on a plane waiting to take off or deliver passengers at an airport

So, last night, when the captain of my Lufthansa flight on a small plane heading from Munich Airport to Geneva – a one hour trip – announced we’d be sitting on the ground for at least an hour because snow removal had closed two runways, I thought “OK, now it’s my turn to be stuck on an airport for ten hours.”

I wasn’t prepared.  Neither my cell phone nor my laptop was fully charged. For food, I had a bag of licorice I’d bought as a gift.  And my book was in the carry-on suitcase I’d stuffed into the overhead bin.

I stole a look at my seatmate and at the people around me.  Were there kids or babies bound to start crying; who was likely to be traveling with good food or snacks; and were these going to be interesting people to be held hostage with on an airplane?

Luckily, I didn’t have to find out.

Within minutes of the pilot announcing our delay, flight attendants appeared with water and juice and trays of white cloth bags, each with a jolly embroidered Santa Claus on the front.

 

Inside each bag was a mandarin orange, a cheese sandwich on dark bread, a package of good cookies and a tiny chocolate Santa.

“Classy,” I thought. “Definitely not the bag of pretzels passengers would be getting if they were stuck on an airplane in the U.S.”

I immediately ate the chocolate Santa and half the sandwich. Then, already thinking like an airplane hostage, I  carefully re-packaged my snacks for later.

I didn’t end up having to swap that orange for a sweater, something to read  or the use of a charged cell phone to call my family or the hotel. After about an hour and a half of sitting out there in the snow, we were indeed on our way.

Good job, Lufthansa and Munich Airport. And thank-you, Santa!

 

 

 

Schiphol getting world’s first airport library

Library at Strahov Monastery

(Strahov Monastery library, Prague. Photos courtesy Curious Expeditions , via Flickr)

Over the years I’ve heard from one or two US airports that were toying with the idea of letting their local library have a cart somewhere in the terminal where travelers could check out and return library books.

But so far, it seems nothing much has come of that.

Now comes word that, come July, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport will have the world’s first airport library, complete with books, films and music. According to Radio Netherlands:

As the airport library is a place where people will pass time and then leave on their flights, visitors will not be allowed to take books, DVDs or other items away. There will, however, be a separate ‘download room’. A new device will allow visitors to not only watch films, but also to download them to mobile phones.

A brilliant idea! Hopefully other airports will team up with local libraries and do the same.

And, for fun and inspiration, take a look at this Librophiliac Love Letter from Curious Expeditions – a round-up of some of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Schiphol’s new library may not end up looking like any of these, but I bet they’ll create something quite inviting.


The DOT’s new 3-hour rule: what you need to know

(Denver Airport – courtesy Gregory Thow)

A new set of DOT rules go into effect today promising a wide variety of protections for airline travelers.  As I outlined in an msnbc.com column, Something for everyone in the DOT rules, these regulations offer quite a bit more than just the assurance that passengers will be let off a plane if a delay stretches into the three-hour range.

Here’s just a bit of what you need to know:

Stuck on an airplane?

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must now let you off  a plane by the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.  After two hours, though, the DOT now requires airlines to offer you some water and a little something – maybe pretzels or a granola bar – to eat.  Even if you’re on one of those small, regional carriers.

Each airline must also now have contingency plans in place and those plans need to be posted on an airline’s website. Airlines have more leeway with these plans for international flights – so comparing plans before you buy tickets could be useful.

Got a beef?

To make sure you can file a complaint, airlines must now post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on their Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates. And no more sending those complaints to the ‘circular file.’ The DOT now requires airlines to answer your complaint within 60 days.

There’s more.  So I urge you read the full column – Something for everyone in the DOT rules – so you know what to expect.

Don’t worry, be happy

And, for those of you worried that the three-hour rule means you’ll be marooned at an airport once you’re let off a delayed plane, airport officials say: “Don’t worry.”

Airport directors I spoke with for a USATODAY.com column – Are airports ready for the three hour rule? – say most every airport, even small ones currently excluded from the new DOT rules, has plans and equipment in place to help airlines comply with the new rules and to accommodate passengers let back into the terminal after a 3-hour delay.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.

Tidbits for travelers: free buffets at JFK; free flights to nowhere

Volcano-delayed flights to and from Europe and beyond are resuming, but airport closures and flight cancellations may continue on-and-off for weeks. So this NYT tracking map may be handy for a while longer.

NYT volcano cancellation map

In the meantime, people have been opening their homes to stranded passengers and theaters, museums and restaurants have been offering discounted and free entertainment and meals to folks who found themselves stuck at the airport.  At JFK, the company that operates all the restaurants and fast-food outlets in Terminal 4 – SSP America – organized a free buffet meal for about 300 on Monday night. Breakfast for 300 was served Tuesday morning as well.

And no doubt because I spent so much time learning about the ins and outs of some very tiny and unusual airports for a Bing story titled: Easy Flier: 10 airports that reduce the hassle, I was extremely interested in this story on CNN, which discusses some other small airports around the country that end up having to offer free flights in order to maintain federal funding.