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TRAVEL INSIDER : Changing the Customs Used for LAX Arrivals : Airport: New passenger service official could help U.S. agency's image, but don't expect shorter waits.


The Customs inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport may not be your favorite people. Certainly, they aren't favorites of Anaheim reader Jane Austin, who wrote us recently to lament the "sadistic, almost gleeful" way in which her baggage was searched on four of her last six international arrivals.

But take notice, Ms. Austin and others: Since November, U.S. Customs Service officials at LAX have been working on a pilot project aimed at improving the agency's strained relationship with travelers. Similar programs are in place in Detroit and Dallas.

Before expectations rise too high, however, travelers should note that the Customs people haven't specifically designed this program to speed up the arrival process. Instead, they're hoping that if travelers are given better understanding of the process, they will be less frustrated by the amount of time and trouble it takes. And that in turn could save time.

The idea, in short, is to put a friendly human face on the agency. And that face for now belongs to Anthony Owens, 33, an eight-year veteran of the agency. Owens, reassigned five months ago from a post supervising inspections, is the first "passenger service representative" Customs has had at LAX.

Owens fields letters of complaint, takes calls at a newly established phone number (310-215- 2416) and personally greets three or four of the 80 or so flights that arrive daily at the international terminal. (Other Customs officials may be present at other arrivals, but aren't as likely to announce themselves.) Instead of a uniform, Owens wears a coat and tie, and is quick with a smile.

"Less intimidating," he explained, walking the airport halls on a recent day.

Customs officials say other passenger-friendly innovations are in the works: a five-minute in-flight video that will explain what arriving passengers can expect, and a passenger satisfaction survey conducted by an outside consultant.

"We want to diffuse this fear of coming through Customs. We don't want to be viewed as uniformed ogres," said Richard Vigna, Los Angeles airport director for Customs.

Eighteen Customs supervisors and 172 full- and part-time inspectors monitor the international passenger areas of LAX, including a varying number of plainclothes officers who pose as passengers, listening and looking for tips that could disclose illegal imports. (In addition to its operation in the Bradley International Terminal, Customs processes passengers at LAX's Delta and Northwest terminals.) All told, Owens said, he and his colleagues enforce some 600 laws on behalf of some 60 local, state and federal agencies, most notably collecting duty and searching for drugs.

The growth of global air travel has not made their lives easy. In 1986, LAX Customs processed 2.7 million passengers. In fiscal 1992, which ended Sept. 30, inspectors handled 5.5 million. In 1993, international arrivals are projected to reach 6 million, and among U.S. airports, LAX will be surpassed only by Kennedy Airport in New York and Miami International Airport. While their workload has doubled, the Customs officials' budget has not.

Because of such burgeoning traffic, Customs officials in 1989 stopped conducting brief interviews with every incoming passenger. But Customs officials aren't the only government representatives that an inbound international traveler faces at LAX. Four other government agencies have inspectors and other officials in the area that many passengers think of as Customs territory. The most prominent is the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture asks at least a question or two of every incoming passenger, and officials from the U.S. Public Health Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are on hand as well.

Last month, on an uncrowded weekday--better circumstances than most leisure travelers face, to be sure, and well ahead of the summer vacation rush--I traced the path of an international arrival with Owens and chief inspector Michael D. Orlito as my guides. The test travelers we shadowed, a few hundred of them, arrived at precisely noon on a China Airlines flight from Taipei.

Owens stepped aboard, negotiated with the purser to have his welcome translated into Chinese, and offered a few quick words. The passengers, already crowding each other in the aisles, mostly stared blankly. Filing past, however, several smiled and said hello.

First stop: The Immigration and Naturalization Service. Here passports are checked for the first time. This is almost always the longest wait for incoming international travelers, even with several gates processing people at once. After 30 minutes, most of the Taipei incomers have been processed. In theory, the wait should never exceed 45 minutes for returning U.S. citizens; under directives from high above, immigration officers swing into a hurry-up mode--letting U.S. passport-bearers through quickly--if the processing of a flight looks like it will take any longer than that.

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