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O’Hare passport kiosks cutting travel time through Customs

New passport kiosks O'Hare Airport. | TinSfondeles/Sun-Times

New passport kiosks at O'Hare Airport. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 17, 2013 8:16AM

International travelers arriving in Chicago are spending 16 minutes less passing through U.S. Customs, thanks to a technology upgrade making its national debut at O’Hare Airport’s international terminal.

Known as Automated Passport Control, the 32 self-serve kiosks have already shaved 33 percent off the average waiting time during peak hours — from 50 minutes to 34 — since they were installed without fanfare June 24.

That’s even though passenger volumes have increased by 21 percent compared with the same 40-day period a year ago.

The number of passengers who missed connecting flights because of long waits was reduced by 62 percent at United Airlines and 76 percent at American.

The program is currently confined to holders of U.S. passports, but it’s expected to be expanded to all travelers over time.

At a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is promoting Chicago as a destination for international tourists, Automated Passport Control has the potential to dramatically improve their first impression of the city.

Instead of waiting on long lines to pass through Customs, arriving passengers can go directly to one of the 32 self-serve kiosks now located in the passport control area without filling out a Customs declaration form.

At the kiosks, passengers scan their passports, take a photograph, fill out the Customs declaration electronically and answer a series of questions verifying their personal and flight information.

Travelers then get a receipt and present it and their passport to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer to finalize the inspection, which is a breeze because the heavy lifting was done at the kiosk.

Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said on Thursday Chicago is the first U.S. airport to test the new program she saw while attending an airport conference in Canada.

“The investment is paying off. The new technology is exceeding everybody’s expectations. Our customers are experiencing shorter wait times, less congestion and faster processing when they arrive here in Chicago,” Andolino said.

“First impressions of a city [are critical]. Chicago may be the start of your journey. It may be your last stop. You may be returning home. Whatever it is, we want to ensure that you enjoy your experience. We want to make sure from now into the future, they choose Chicago.”

Andolino said the airport experience is critical if Chicago is to reach Emanuel’s goal of attracting 50 million annual visitors by 2020. It’s now just over 46 million.

“People will make other choices if wait times are too long. At gateway airports throughout the country this summer, there have been two- and three-hour wait times [with federal budget cuts known as sequestration taking effect]. Here, we’ve reduced the number of passengers waiting over an hour by 58 percent and the number waiting over 120 minutes by 98 percent.”

The decision to confine Automated Passport Control, first developed by the Vancouver Airport Authority and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to holders of U.S. passports makes sense, Andolino said.

“This is a brand-new product just certified by CBP. They started with U.S. passport holders first, their main customers. They know the most about that person. They have the highest confidence in the information they have. The system is secure,” she said.

“As they continue to evaluate and work with other countries to start to get their information — starting with Canada first and expanding to other international visitors — we may possibly have to add more kiosks” at O’Hare.


Twitter: @fspielman

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