The Bureaucratic Hurdle Travelers Thought They Were Done With

The Bureaucratic Hurdle Travelers Thought They Were Done With

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Speedy trips through passport control and customs may not be the first thing on travelers’ minds these days. But a backlog now could equal giant headaches later for people who fly internationally.

The Global Entry trusted-traveler program, which lets you enter the country with a short stop at a kiosk rather than long lines to get quizzed by an officer, has hit some big snags. After a six-month closure, Customs and Border Protection reopened Global Entry interviews required for enrollment and some renewals on Sept. 8. Or so the agency claims.

In a check for available appointments conducted Sunday, nine of the nation’s 20 largest airports declared no appointments were available at any time, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit and Dallas-Fort Worth.

But after inquiries were made to CBP, appointments did start opening up on the program’s appointment page. By Wednesday morning, five of the nine big airports with no appointments showed openings available this month and next, though there was still no availability at Los Angeles International, Detroit, Philadelphia and Houston Intercontinental. And availability can disappear quickly as waiting travelers book.

With all the shifting, five of the top 20 airports showed no availability on Wednesday.

CBP spokesman Nathan Peeters says each office is managed locally. Many enrollment centers are opening appointment slots incrementally, month by month, he says, so checking periodically for openings could help.

He also says the agency is offering walk-up interviews at 62 airports for people entering the U.S. from abroad. In normal times, that would be helpful. These days, since many countries don’t want U.S. travelers entering and few people here are going abroad, that option isn’t useful.

Frederick Van Bennekom, an operations management consultant and teacher in the Boston area, applied for Global Entry on Aug. 5, 2019. He got his conditional approval on Dec. 19, 2019 from CBP. From there he had a year to complete an in-person interview, where a CBP officer typically asks about past travels, examines your passport and collects a photo and fingerprints.

He couldn’t find an interview at Boston Logan Airport, closest to his home, so he scheduled an appointment in Hartford, Conn., for May. In April, CBP canceled the interview. He rebooked for Dec. 10 in Providence, R.I., then got an email on Saturday saying that office was shut indefinitely.

“The government wanted us to enroll in this to shorten wait times, and they are certainly making it difficult to enroll in the program,” Mr. Van Bennekom says. “It’s crazy.”

Global Entry boosts security and shortens lines. With seven million people enrolled, many of them frequent travelers, Global Entry has done much to reduce long waits to enter the country at major airports. Enrollment in Global Entry also gets you into the Transportation Security Agency’s PreCheck program, where you get expedited, less-intrusive screening at many checkpoints. Those lines aren’t long these days, but whenever life gets back closer to normal, the long delays could well return.

The trusted-traveler program costs $100 for five years, slightly more than the $85 cost if you sign up for PreCheck alone. Many travelers believe that separately or together, the programs are the best bang for the buck in travel, saving both time and hassle.

First-time Global Entry applicants must have an in-person interview with a CBP officer. For renewals every five years, CBP says an in-person interview may be required to capture updated fingerprints or photographs, especially for adults initially enrolled as minors; to resolve questions associated with name adjustments or citizenship changes, or to confirm any changes made to the member’s trusted-traveler program profile.

CBP says 330,000 conditionally approved Global Entry applicants have interviews scheduled and another 400,000 haven’t yet scheduled interviews. Asked how long it will take for the agency to catch up on interviews, Mr. Peeters pointed to high demand after nearly six months of closed enrollment centers. He added that CBP understands the frustration these delays have caused.

What’s perplexing about the lack of appointment availability is that the CBP workforce presumably doesn’t have nearly as much to do at airports as it used to. International air arrivals into the U.S. are down some 90%.

CBP has made no staff reductions at airports, Mr. Peeters says. He notes one limiting factor on interviews: Covid-19 spacing precautions reduce the number of travelers who can interview simultaneously.

Some CBP officers have been sent to protests in several cities as federal law enforcement, but Mr. Peeters says that has not affected interview availability.

CBP says it shut down Global Entry interviews for six months “to minimize the risk of exposing travelers and CBP personnel to the novel coronavirus.” The Enrollment on Arrival program was continued because officers need to process arriving passengers anyway.

CBP has extended five-year membership periods by 180 days for people who apply to renew because of the program’s enrollment delays.

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For some travelers who have applied, a clock is ticking on their $100 fee. CBP gives you one year to complete an interview if required, or you forfeit your $100. The agency says it’s also extended that one-year deadline by 180 days.

But even that may not be enough for Greg Chvisuk, a Framingham, Mass., tax attorney. His application was conditionally approved on Nov. 29 last year and his credit card was charged $100. He scheduled the first available interview at Logan, which pre-Covid was still six months away on April 22. That was canceled when CBP ended all Global Entry scheduled interviews beginning March 19.

Mr. Chvisuk got no notice of CBP’s 180-day extension. When he logs into CBP’s system, the dashboard still says he has to complete his interview by Nov. 29 this year. Even with the extension, he may not be able to get an interview done. The nearest appointment option he could find is Derby Line, Vt. That’s 12 hours of driving round trip to the Canadian border.

“You sometimes wonder if anyone in government thinks like the person trying to use the program,” he says.

He wrote to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in hopes of getting help scheduling an interview at Logan. But a staffer wrote back that the office couldn’t help with CBP’s morass.

“What am I supposed to do? I don’t know what else to do,” Mr. Chvisuk says.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

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