No Exit

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Much as we don’t mean to take liberties with the Lady of the Harbor, the tired, poor, huddled masses we refer to were not immigrants arriving under the light of her torch at Ellis Island. And this wasn’t generations ago. These tired masses were homecoming American citizens standing on line after midnight Tuesday at passport control in JFK airport. And they were yearning to get home… and feeling wretched about waiting for hours on line to get their passports stamped.

What made the wait particularly irksome was that it came after already checking in at the new automated passport machines. These kiosks — reminiscent of the old coin-operated photo booths at amusement parks — are do-it-yourself customs agents. They have a slot to stick in and scan your passport, take your picture, then “magically” guess your arriving flight. When you accept the answer, it prints out your photo ID with all the relevant information. Purportedly, the machines were installed to cut down on wait times at customs.

The Automated Passport Control system is under the authority of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. According to their official website, “Automated Passport Control (APC) is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that expedites the entry process for U.S., Canadian and eligible Visa Waiver Program international travelers by providing an automated process through CBP’s Primary Inspection area. Travelers use self-service kiosks to submit their Customs declaration form and biographic information. … Travelers using APC experience shorter wait times, less congestion, and faster processing.”

JFK is the busiest airport for international travel, especially Terminal 4 — where El Al is one of the 31 airlines that use it. According to JFK International Air Terminal LLC (JFKIAT), which operates Terminal 4, “Over 12,000 people work in and around the terminal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

But when an El Al plane landed Tuesday night, passengers expecting to be on their way home in an hour were still inching their way along the long lines. And, as the night shift turned into the graveyard shift, it was only to be expected that the rubber stamping would be handled by a skeleton crew.

After a 12-hour flight (already delayed for technical problems), the passengers seemed to have developed a sense of camaraderie approaching brothers in arms. After a couple of hours on line, it became more like prisoners of war.

Skift, an airline travel information service, reported in March a “65.9% decrease from the 30.7-minute average wait time in March 2013 before the kiosks launched at JFK and this puts JFK at the top of the leaderboard in terms of which airport can claim the most success from the kiosks.”

But it’s a case of first, the good news. They go on to say, “However, the improved overall monthly average wait time doesn’t mean JFK completely overcame its notoriously long Customs wait times. For example, Delta Air Lines boasted that Customs wait times in its Terminal 4 arrivals facility at JFK were reduced by 90% shortly after the kiosks became available in October 2013 but last week there were still several instances of maximum wait times exceeding two hours in Terminal 4 and average wait times hovered around one hour.”

On the surface, this may all sound like a melodramatic consumer complaint letter. But, at the risk of mixing melodrama with conspiracy theory, there seems to be something more insidious here than just awful customer service.

Vice President Joe Biden caused a stir when he compared La Guardia Airport to “some third world country.”

But one of the officials  agreeing with the vice president was Patrick J. Foye,  executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency managing New York’s airports.

JFK is bigger and more modern than La Guardia, but the service isn’t all that much better than Kiev Boryspil International Airport.

But the Port Authority, for all of its faults, is only part of the story here. They run the airports, but they don’t run security. That is controlled by the federal government, under U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013:

“CBP acknowledges that wait times have increased. It says the problem is the agency doesn’t have enough officers. Over the past three years, the number of people arriving at U.S. airports from abroad is up 12%, to record levels of more than 100 million a year, a senior CBP official said. Yet the number of agents at airports authorized by Congress essentially is unchanged, the CBP said.”

Why, pray tell, is the federal government — which supposedly has two top priorities of Homeland Security and increasing jobs — decreasing security personnel at international airports?

And why were there more than twice as many agents serving foreign visitors as there were U.S. citizens? Is this part of Washington’s new immigration policy? Welcome foreigners; keep out citizens?