August 21, 2008

Few Make Use of Customs Pilot Plan

By Thomas Frank

WASHINGTON -- A government effort to shorten lines at customs checkpoints in U.S. airports has drawn little public interest, prompting calls for better promotion of the pilot program.

Just 464 people have used a system launched June 10 at three airports that lets U.S. travelers skip regular customs lines by swiping their passports at a special kiosk when they return from trips abroad, according to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bureau.

The Global Entry program is part of a CBP effort to facilitate overseas travel to the USA, which remains below 2000 levels.

"They have not made a major marketing push on this," says Stewart Verdery, a consultant for the National Business Travel Association, which pushed for Global Entry. He said CBP should enroll people in city centers instead of only at airports.

Program director John Wagner says enrollment is "as we expected" and should expand when it is launched in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta airports this fall. Global Entry eventually will expand to the 20 major U.S. international airports and overseas.

U.S. passport holders join by clearing a background check that includes an interview at an airport and paying a $100 five-year fee. Wagner says 1,300 people signed up since enrollment began in May, and 464 have used kiosks since they opened in June at New York's Kennedy (Terminal 4), Houston Intercontinental and Washington Dulles.

"We're comfortable with where the program is," says Travel Industry Association CEO Roger Dow says. "It's one of those things that has to build momentum."

The program could ease customs lines for all travelers by moving participants through a separate checkpoint and reducing crowds in regular lines.

Dow says that could encourage travel from overseas visitors, which he says is dampened partly by a "perception that it's difficult to get through customs."

The USA had 24 million overseas visitors in 2007, down from 26 million in 2000, government data show. Total international visitors, including Mexicans and Canadians, were 56 million, up from 51 million in 2000.

CBP is working to let people from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands join Global Entry and allow U.S. participants into faster customs lines in those countries, Wagner says. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>