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Passport picture getting ugly

As flight dates near, many people who sent applications in months ago are scrambling to get the document. Some have given up and changed plans.

June 07, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Cramped planes and late flights are likely to make this summer one of the worst ever for international travel. But nothing seems to have people seething more than passport delays.

With U.S. passports now being required for travel to and from Canada and Mexico, huge delays are worsening and travelers are looking for ways to beat the maze they say has been created by an overburdened U.S. State Department.

"It's hard enough to fly anywhere these days, but to have to go through this is too much," said Roy Dolin, a Westchester resident who hasn't gotten his passport even though he applied for a renewal in early March -- 14 weeks ago -- and has a flight to Costa Rica on Friday. "It's a nightmare."

For now, the best advice for travelers, experts say, is to apply early and hope it comes in time.

But there may be other ways to reduce worries -- some of which cost money. People can spend an extra $60 for an expedited service that gets the passport processed in two to three weeks.

But even that could be extended if the State Department gets swamped with such applications.

Travel experts also suggest considering hiring third-party expediting companies that might be able to get a coveted appointment at the passport office for an additional fee of $100 to $180.

It appears that things may get worse before they get any better as summer travel reaches its peak in the next few weeks.

"There is much more of a hassle factor involved, and it's going to be like that for the next several months," said Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Assn.

At the Los Angeles passport office, more than 150 people began lining up at 4 a.m. Tuesday, hoping to pick up their passports that had been promised them weeks before. The office, which is in the Federal Building in Westwood, provides last-minute passports for travelers living in the southern section of California and portions of Nevada.

Many of them had a flight within a day or two and couldn't get through to anyone at the State Department either by phone or e-mail even though many had applied at least 12 weeks ago. Some who did get through were told that their passport had been express mailed to them a week earlier, only to be told later that it actually hadn't left the building and was unlikely to get to them in time.

"I followed their advice," said Jeff England, a Huntington Beach resident who applied 13 weeks ago in March after booking a flight to Cancun that leaves today. "I didn't worry about it because they told me then it would take eight to 10 weeks. Now I'm really worried."

Diane Embree, a longtime travel consultant in Westlake Village, said the passport delays were prompting some of her clients to change their travel plans to U.S. destinations and cancel vacations overseas.

"As far as I know nobody has had a situation where they didn't get their passports, but it's really gotten down to the wire," Embree said, adding that "there are people who are holding off travel because they don't think they can get the passport in time."

The State Department estimates that it will process more than 17 million passports this year, a 40% increase from 2006, as new rules requiring passports for flights to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda are contributing to the record number of applications.

The agency said it has added 200 employees, recalled retirees with past passport experience and opened a new processing center in Arkansas.

All of its 18 passport offices are working overtime, and it even has had senior officials handle telephone calls after the end of their workday.

A State Department spokesman said that the "vast majority" were getting their passports in time through the normal process and that the extreme cases of delays, "while visible, are not representative."

Still, the agency recently revised its estimated wait time from 10 weeks to 12 weeks, or twice as long as a year ago.

Frustrated with the delays, some travelers are turning to Congress for help. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) is getting about 50 calls a week from travelers seeking passport assistance. His office had no such requests last year.

"It's been the last couple of weeks that we've seen a spike" in calls about passports, said Frederick Hill, Issa's press secretary, who noted that the congressman now has one person working on the requests full time.

The delays have been so pervasive that congressional delegations in Texas and New Mexico have written to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"For the last 8 to 10 weeks my office has received 10 to 20 calls daily, and most people have had processing time well over the posted timeframes," Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) wrote to Rice, saying the delays were "becoming untenable for my constituents."

"This is insane," said Gene Donofrio, who was waiting in line Tuesday outside the Federal Building because he had a flight today to Canada. "This place makes the DMV look great."

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