CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- Like all U.S. international gateway airports, Charlotte Douglas International Airport would be far better off if arriving international passengers weren't greeted with long waits for customs processing.
The December merger between American Airlines (AAL) and US Airways made Charlotte Douglas the second-biggest hub for the world's biggest airline and secured its position as one of the world's leading airports. International arrivals, which already have nearly doubled since 2006 to about 1.5 million annually, seem likely to grow at the second-largest Southeast hub.
On Tuesday, Charlotte Douglas and U.S. Customs and Border Protection unveiled 24 new passport kiosks. Officials said the kiosks will 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. Most critically, that will reduce the number of missed connections at an airport where about 75% of passengers connect.
Charlotte Douglas is among the 10 U.S. global gateway airports to get the kiosks in time for the summer travel season. The kiosks are part of a long-stalled effort to improve customs processing, a longstanding embarrassing bugaboo for international travel. At the four biggest international gateway airports -- JFK, Miami, LAX and Newark -- delays of one to two hours or longer frequently draw media attention.
Charlotte has faced the problem for years. In 2000, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a Customs and Border Protection predecessor. One would have thought that if anybody could move the INS, it was the powerful Helms, who was also deeply committed to building Charlotte Douglas. But the agency was so mired in bureaucracy that even he had problems.
It was a time when US Airways was just starting to build its Charlotte-Europe service, adding London, Paris and Frankfurt. But the airport had only eight inspectors and airport officials complained that waits of an hour or more were typical. The only firm commitment Helms could get was for two additional agents, bringing the total to 10.
"Certainly the increase is not commensurate with the increase in international traffic in Charlotte, but I'm cautiously optimistic we will be able to get more relief in the near future. We are going to press, press, press," a top aide to Helms said at the time.
On Tuesday, a CPB spokesperson would not say how many agents work at Charlotte now, citing security concerns. Whatever the number is, it seems clear that the kiosks will speed passage through customs and that they are needed. Charlotte has about 1.5 million international arrivals annually, nearly twice the 2006 level.
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.
Among other benefits for Charlotte, the merger with American seemed to forever end the chance that US Airways would merge with Delta (DAL) , which it sought to do in 2006 and which would have made Charlotte a secondary hub to Atlanta.
So far, the merger has not yet brought new international flights to Charlotte. In fact, it has led to a decision to cancel Charlotte-Rio de Janeiro service early year. Looking ahead, whether international destinations are added or not, an increase in international connections seems likely.
This summer, US Airways has boosted trans-Atlantic service, adding flights to Barcelona, Brussels, Lisbon and Manchester, England, although slow bookings resulted in cuts -- announced last month -- in frequencies and in how many weeks the flights would last. Still, Charlotte will have summer service to 11 European destinations including Munich on Lufthansa.
Ten days ago, US Airways Express it will start service from Charlotte to three Midwest destinations: Grand Rapids, Mich. and Evansville and Fort Wayne, Ind. In February, American said it would add Charlotte to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla. All five cities are in areas with a strong American presence but limited access to the Southeast. Also, service to Little Rock, Ark., has increased.
In an interview, Brett Cagle, Charlotte Douglas aviation director, said that so far the impact of the merger on the airport has been minimal, with American and US Airways still operating separately.
One change has been that cities such as Fayetteville, N.C., lost their non-stops to Washington Reagan National because the Justice Department required US Airways to give up DCA slots in the merger. So Fayetteville-DCA passengers now connect in Charlotte. Also, Cagle said, more American planes are occupying US Airways gates, which can confuse passengers.
Still, Cagle plans a new airport concourse next to the existing A concourse. "The airport is big enough to accommodate growth but we need to continue growing," he said. The new concourse would add 20 to 25 gates to the existing 96 gates. The earliest work, on the ramp, should begin in the next 12 months.
Currently, the most visible airport project is parking lot additions: Construction has led to frequent traffic delays. "It has been very messy," Cagle conceded. The biggest problem has been that backups at the hourly parking lot result in drivers circling the airport.
However, a new closed-in hourly garage is scheduled to open in early November. The number of airport parking spaces will grow from 21,000 today to 28,000 by spring 2015.
Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.
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