Passport backlog prompts a waiver

Americans flying to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean will not need a passport this summer to return to the United States. 
The departments of State and Homeland Security reversed the passport requirement — which went into effect in January — because of extraordinary waits for passports. The requirement will go back into effect Sept. 30.
    “The fact of the matter is that the volume and level exceeded any of the anticipated estimates that were made in advance,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
    “We’ve been aware now for a few weeks that there’s been an increasing number of concerned Americans calling us and calling their congressional offices to say that they’ve been waiting for a passport, they hadn’t seen it yet, and concerned about being able to meet their own travel commitment,” he said.
    The State Department is on track to issue 17.5 million passports this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That represents a 45 percent increase over last year. The wait for a passport spiked to 12 weeks this spring, from about four to six weeks previously.
    Travelers will need proof of identification, such as a driver’s license, and proof that they have applied for a passport to get back into the United States. Such travelers may face extra scrutiny, according to the State Department, and travelers cannot enter the United States without a receipt.
    The passport requirement was put into effect in January as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and was designed to prevent terrorists from entering the United States through other North American countries. The State Department said relaxing the rule poses no threat to national security.
    “We don’t believe this represents a relaxation in security or creates any kind of new problem for security at U.S. ports of entry,” Mr. Casey said, adding that agents will be able to confirm a traveler’s pending passport application by computer.
    The travel industry lobbied hard for a reprieve from the requirement, saying travel plans were being delayed or canceled because the State Department couldn’t keep up with the increase in demand for passports. Several members of Congress also said recently they have filed requests for expedited passports on constituents’ behalf.
    “Common sense prevails,” said Roger J. Dow, president and chief executive officer of the Travel Industry Association, a Washington trade group.
    “This will allow travelers to make summer plans and enter the United States while our passport officials have time to address the backlog of passport applications in an effective way. It’s an important timeout that allows the machinery of government to catch up with the new laws.”
    The passport requirement does not yet apply to travelers entering the United States by land or sea. That rule is scheduled to go into effect in January. The State Department yesterday reiterated that Congress mandated the January date and that it plans to follow through with implementation.
    AAA Mid-Atlantic said yesterday the changes will only cause more confusion.
    “We are concerned that this new rule may be misinterpreted by some citizens to mean that they no longer need anything but their driver’s license, as was the case in the past,” spokesman John B. Townsend. “That just is not the case.”
    Travelers can track their passport applications online at Travelers scheduled to depart within two weeks can call the National Passport Information Center at 877/487-2778.
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