The other day I blurted out during a radio interview that I hate to travel, which is admittedly a fairly odd statement given that I have been writing about travel here for more than 14 years.
The main issue for me is the getting there and back, not necessarily the being there. There are the aggravations at airport security, where you are routinely barked at, told to raise your hands like some cornered cowboy movie desperado. And once you clear that hurdle, you head to the next — gridlock at the airplane boarding gate, with its evocations of Ellis Island circa 1903.
And speaking of travel annoyances, did I mention that United Airlines last week quietly raised the penalty fee for changing flights on most so-called nonrefundable domestic coach tickets to $200 from $150, and to $300 from $250 for some international tickets? Since, as I always say, most truly bad ideas ultimately prevail, other airlines are certainly considering doing the same.
So given the mounting irritations, it has been a pleasure to make note here of a truly good idea that actually reduces hassles and is being enthusiastically embraced by international travelers — the Global Entry program of Customs and Border Protection. Global Entry allows American air travelers who qualify through background checks and an interview to re-enter the country quickly, avoiding those seemingly interminable Customs lines at arrival airports.
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Instead, members just swipe their passports at special kiosks, where their fingerprints and irises are scanned to match the biometrically encoded data on their identification cards. And then, except for the occasional random secondary inspection built into the program, you have cleared Customs in almost literally the blink of an eye.
I had an entirely satisfactory but nevertheless somewhat baffling experience at a Global Entry enrollment center near the Mexican border in Nogales, Ariz. Only after dozens of failed attempts did the electronic scanner finally accept my fingerprints to complete my enrollment.
Actually, the fingerprint scan problem isn’t as isolated as I had assumed. I’ve now heard from numerous people that the fingerprint scanners, both at enrollment centers and at the airport kiosks, can occasionally be balky.
David Horne, for example, said that his wife had experienced the same problem at an enrollment center, and the officer “asked if she does a lot of keyboard work.” Horne said, “She indicated she does, and he said it was not unusual for those folks to have problems with the machine reading their prints.”
Several other readers pointed out that, if the kiosk scanner doesn’t read your prints, you can wind up in the general international arrivals scrum, at the back of the line.
“A very small number of individuals have fingerprints that are difficult to capture,” Stephanie Malin, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, responded. “If an individual has problems at the kiosk,” she added, the agency has backup procedures that can provide “expedited manual screening.” The agency is also “testing secondary biometric technology for possible use at the kiosks,” she said.
Global Entry, started five years ago, now has more than 1.5 million members, and 7,000 to 12,000 passengers a day now re-enter the country using the kiosks. As word spreads, applications have been soaring, to about 50,000 a month now, John Wagner, the acting deputy assistant commissioner for field operations, told me.
Meanwhile, for those who don’t travel internationally much, the Transportation Security Administration is looking into adapting Global Entry criteria to expand the TSA’s PreCheck program more into the wider population.
PreCheck provides less-stringent airport security checks for passengers who pass background checks and are selected by airlines from among their high-volume elite customers. Global Entry members already qualify for PreCheck consideration, but a “Global Entry Lite” program, as the TSA calls it, would allow a lot more so-called “trusted travelers” to qualify, with an enrollment fee lower than the $100 for the international Global Entry, but yet to be determined.
Incidentally, it is a given that not everyone is approved to join these growing trusted traveler programs. “When a person applies, we’ll look at criminal records, past violations at Customs for agriculture, immigration,” Wagner said. “And, of course, we check the security watch lists and investigatory databases.” Those whose applications are denied receive a letter stating the reason, with information on how to appeal, the agency says.
“We’re fairly strict on who qualifies or who would be disqualified,” Wagner said. “Any type of derogatory information for past infractions renders a person unqualified for the program.”
Those strict criteria are being applied as the agency develops more international partnerships that allow Global Entry members easier entry into some participating countries, while providing reciprocity here for their citizens who belong to similar programs.
The partnerships are being developed in countries with “like-minded” uniform security standards, Wagner said. So, for example, the agency announced last week that it was starting a trial program allowing Global Entry members to use Australia’s automated border-processing system, SmartGate.