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Passport Kiosks Best News in Years for International Air Travel

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- Good news is often overlooked, especially in the world of commercial air travel. It is so much easier to write about the complaints, which attract far more page views.

But it needs to be said that this summer's introduction of passport kiosks around the country seem to be solving one of the most annoying and longest standing problems of the airline industry.

For years, U.S. gateway airports -- those airports with international access -- have frequently been plagued by long lines of arriving passengers waiting for hours to get through customs inspection. Periodically these lines would be so long they would rise to the level of news stories.

In the 1990s, I wrote such stories for The Miami Herald and in the 2000s I wrote some for The Charlotte Observer, detailing the problems at Miami International and Charlotte Douglas International airports. Somehow Congress could never come up with the money to fix it. Good for newspaper stories, bad for airline passengers.

Now, amazingly, the problem appears to be being solved: Wait times are being reduced significantly. We do not have Congress to thank, but rather the technology that enables passport kiosks and the airlines who pushed for the kiosks and are generally funding them.

"Every airport that has installed them reports a sharp decline in wait times," said travel columnist Joe Brancatelli. "Clearly, it's good to have these kiosks; they end a lot of entry bottlenecks."

Two weeks ago, Charlotte Douglas and U.S. Customs and Border Protection unveiled 24 new passport kiosks. Officials said the kiosks would cut 10 to 15 minutes from the time required for the average arriving international passenger to move through customs, meaning the average time could drop to about 10 minutes.

This summer, US Airways, now part of American (AAL), will fly from Charlotte to 11 European destinations. (The airport serves about two dozen international destinations.) At times, nine international flights can arrive within one to two hours, said Dalia Ballester, American Airlines managing director for customer care. "There has not been enough capacity to get all those folks through," she said. The airport paid about $2 million for the kiosks.

Charlotte Douglas is among the 10 U.S. global gateway airports to get the kiosks in time for the summer travel season. A CBP spokeswoman did not respond to emails.

In the New York area, Kennedy International, the largest international gateway, has airport kiosks at two terminals, while Newark Liberty International, the fourth largest, expects to have kiosks next month. "New York metro airports are the busiest international passenger gateways in the country, and have suffered from the longest customs lines in the country for too long," said Joe Sitt, founder of the Global Gateway Alliance, which lobbies for airport improvements in the New York area.

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