Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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June 11, 2015 --After last week's revelation that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can't find weapons or explosives at checkpoints and this week's disclosure that it can't keep terrorists out of airports, frequent flyers may be in the mood for a federal agency that doesn't actively make our lives on the road worse.
How about a kind word for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another division of the Homeland Security Department?
Known as CBP, the agency is far from perfect, of course, but its frontline airport people generally seem less discouraged and confrontational than TSA agents. And CBP's managers actually seem interested in doing their job faster and better.
Case in point: Customs and Immigration clearance when we return to the United States from an overseas flight. CBP seems to understand that our best interaction with them is almost none at all. All we want is to tick the boxes on the forms and get the heck out of Dodge. So the agency has become extraordinarily flexible, nicely creative, and laudably tech-friendly.
For starters, CBP doesn't hide its performance from those of us who use its service. The agency's website publishes hour-by-hour statistics on customs clearance wait times — and does it on a terminal-by-terminal basis. Data isn't available in real time, so you do have to extrapolate on conditions on the day you fly home, but at least you have general idea of how CBP performs at a particular time in a particular terminal at an airport.
The stats reveal some weaknesses in CBP's performance, but the agency doesn't seem to shrink from that.
Trusted traveler done right
The TSA's dysfunctional PreCheck program frustrates and enrages business travelers because the agency refuses to treat us in a rational and respectful manner.
Not so Global Entry, the trusted traveler program CBP launched in 2008.
Global Entry is a must-have for any regular overseas flyer. It allows you to skip the formalities almost entirely. On arrival at dozens of U.S. airports, you bypass customs lines and go to specially-marked kiosks. You swipe your passport, put your fingers on a reader, click a few buttons on a computer screen, and smile while your photo is taken. You take the receipt to the customs agent as you exit the secure area.
The entire process takes about three minutes. No fuss, no muss, no filling out that mind-numbing customs form asking about the minutia of your overseas purchases.
Even better, CBP makes the Global Entry application process about as easy as you can expect from a federal bureaucracy. The heavy lifting is done online at your leisure, and the mandatory personal interview is fast and surprisingly pleasant. The fee is modest ($100 for five years) and some third parties, most notably the American Express Platinum card, will reimburse the cost.
Global Entry even gets you PreCheck privileges without dealing with the TSA and its application process. (One warning: If you have any kind of criminal record, even a decades-old DUI, don't bother applying. Global Entry is only for pure-as-the-driven-snow business travelers.)
Best of all, Global Entry allows you to apply for customs-bypass systems used by other nations, notably South Korea, the Netherlands and Mexico. It also helps you acquire an APEC Card, a valuable resource for frequent flyers to Pacific Rim nations.
Bypass for the masses
Also unlike the TSA, Customs and Border Protection is fast to adopt smart technology pioneered outside the agency. When the Vancouver Airport Authority invented a self-service customs kiosk for average travelers, CBP quickly approved it for use in the United States. The kiosks first appeared in 2013 and are now in about three dozen airports in North America and the Caribbean. They function in much the same way as a Global Entry kiosk, but are available to any returning flyer.
CBP says the kiosks reduce wait times by as much as 40 percent. That may be overstated, but the machines are faster than filling out the forms and waiting in line for a human agent to process paperwork manually. If there's a drawback, it's that there aren't enough kiosks at enough U.S. arrivals terminals.
There's an app for that
Customs hasn't shrunk from the 21st century, either. It has teamed with a private company to create an Android and iPhone app called Mobile Passport. It does exactly what you'd expect: move the customs and immigration formalities to your smartphone.
You deal with the forms on your phone, submit them via WiFi to the CBP when you land, and flash your digital receipt as you exit. The app works at four major international-arrivals airports: Atlanta, Miami, Seattle and O'Hare in Chicago.
A gimmick too far
But bureaucracies are rarely perfect, especially when they allow mission creep to color their decisions. Since successive administrations have been convinced that the best way to fight terrorism is to keep bad actors off our native soil, they've pushed CBP to do customs and immigration clearance overseas.
The result? So-called "preclearance" operations in foreign countries even before you step onto your flight. In simple language, it means putting CBP agents at overseas airports and requiring travelers to pass through U.S. formalities before they board their departing flight.
Preclearance facilities are now located at 15 airports in Canada, the Caribbean, Ireland and Abu Dhabi. Homeland Security officials announced last month that they wanted to extend CBP operations to nine more countries, including Japan, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
The problem? Preclearance doesn't save time, only shifts formalities to the stressful time before departure. That means you have to arrive at the airport much earlier than usual. Once you clear customs, you are held in literally and figuratively sterile surroundings for an unknown amount of time before your flight departs. In most cases, you have no access to food, water, diversions or airport lounges.
"It's dreary," said Cynthia Falkner, who went through CBP preclearance in Abu Dhabi last month before her flight to Los Angeles. "I had to leave my comfortable lounge and wait in line. Once I cleared, there was nothing to do but wait. And, of course, the flight was delayed as they had to go through all the paperwork with all the passengers."