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Delay reactions

Travel | A backlog in passports has bureaucrats on 24-hour call and air travelers fuming

Issue: "The 2007 Books Issue," June 30, 2007

Kara McElheny was ready for her school art trip to Italy. The 17-year-old had covered the costs, raising $3,000 for her plane ticket and accommodations through church fundraising and by working at a local lodge in New Mexico. At midnight on June 1, five hours before her plane was to leave, she sat with bags packed for the airport, missing just one thing: her passport.

Kara applied for her passport in early March, told by passport officials it would take eight to 10 weeks to arrive-in plenty of time for her trip. Instead, some 11 weeks later at the 11th hour, Kara was still waiting, one of thousands of Americans who have applied for a passport this year only to be snatched up in a thick backlog of applications.

The backlog is the result of a new border security law that took effect in January, which requires Americans traveling by air to and from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean to carry passports. Congress passed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) in 2004, on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

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Even seemingly minor changes can overwhelm a system, however, and the department is struggling to meet the resulting surge in demand for passports-despite adding staff. Officials say some 500,000 applications have been stuck in the pipeline for more than 12 weeks, and that they underestimated demand by as much as 1 million.

About a week before she was due to leave, Kara grew worried. Her family called the National Passport Information Center, an emergency line set up for travelers, only to reach a recording all but one time. A red-letter paragraph on the State Department's travel website warns callers to try the clogged line several times to reach a person.

Finally, she called a district office of her local congressman, Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), and one of his representatives zeroed in on her application in the pipeline: It had been sent by priority mail, but had not arrived at the post office in Alamogordo, some 10 miles away from Kara's hometown of High Rolls in southern New Mexico.

Kara called Alamogordo two or three times a day. Postal workers had stuck Post-it notes with her name on it around the office, to keep an eye out for the precious parcel. Finally, at 1 a.m. on June 1, as Kara waited nervously with her family wondering if she would make her trip, a worker called to say the passport had arrived. Kara's family swung by the post office, then drove two hours to El Paso, Texas, for her first flight, arriving just in time to check in. Ironically, Kara was the first student in her group at the airport.

Such close shaves are becoming common, and angry travelers have swamped their lawmakers' offices with phone calls over the delays. In district offices, such as the one Kara called, matters are even worse: Ana Maria Salazar, one of Pearce's staff members, said she and colleagues are on 24-hour call to deal with requests for help. And when the law's second phase goes into effect-requiring Western hemisphere travelers by land and sea to have passports as well-she said things will only get worse.

Salazar and other congressional staffers say the State Department does its best to help when travel dates get close. Part of the backlog simply seems to be a last-minute rush from travelers to get their passports. "You're trying to squeeze a lot through a very tiny hole," said Dan Scandling, communications director for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

WHTI's second phase was due for implementation Jan. 1, 2008. But facing a huge bottleneck, House lawmakers passed a measure postponing the date to a year later. It still needs to pass the Senate, against the wishes of the Homeland Security Department, but on June 19 Senate lawmakers held a hearing that prodded top consular official Maura Harty about the backlog.

To ease the pressure until September, the department will allow air travelers to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean simply to show proof that they have applied for passports. The department is set to issue 17 million passports this year, up from 12 million last year. Passport centers in New Hampshire and South Carolina-which together handle half the output-are now working 24 hours a day. Kara's case, however, shows that amid changing travel rules one rule remains: Start early.

For more information, please visit http://travel.state.gov.

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