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Travel rule eased amid passport backlog

The government has been unable to handle the application deluge.

June 09, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Conceding that it underestimated the surge in passport applications, the State Department said Friday that it would temporarily ease new rules mandating the use of passports on air travel between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

The move, which comes amid growing public outcry, is intended to unclog a huge passport logjam that has led thousands of travelers to alter or cancel their vacation plans.

The White House approved the plan Thursday but the details were unveiled Friday.

Under the stopgap measure, the U.S. will waive until Sept. 30 the passport requirement for those who have already applied for the document.

But "individuals who have not yet applied for a passport should not expect to be accommodated," a Department of Homeland Security official said.

Western Hemisphere travelers will need only a government-issued photo identification such as a driver's license and a proof that a passport application has been submitted. Children under 16 traveling with a parent or legal guardian will be permitted to travel with the child's proof of passport application.

The State Department said that travelers could obtain the proof of application online at travel.state.gov.

The passport agency has been unable to keep up with the deluge of applications since the new rule -- part of a broader effort to tighten U.S. border security -- went into effect in January. The agency's estimated average wait time grew from 10 weeks in March to 12 weeks last month. Six weeks was the average wait in 2006.

The State Department conceded Friday that despite adding hundreds of workers and a new processing center, it had been unable to meet the goal of issuing passports within its most recent estimate of 12 weeks.

Officials also revised upward their estimate of the number of passport applications the State Department expects to process this year from 17 million to 18 million. That's 50% more applications than were processed last year. The backlog of applications, currently estimated at about 500,000, has led to thousands of complaints, extended delays and canceled trips.

The agency's inability to handle the crush of applications also has raised questions with the second phase of the new rule that will require the use of passports for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Western Hemisphere destinations.

Some members of Congress are asking the State Department to delay by 18 months the implementation of the regulation.

peter.pae@latimes.com

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