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Passport applications plunge as recession chokes off foreign travel

The State Department's workload has eased so much that applicants are getting their documents in three weeks or less. But tougher border rules set to take effect June 1 may create more demand.

February 03, 2009|Jane Engle

With the recession choking foreign travel, passport applications are plunging and the workload at the State Department is easing enough that those applying are getting their documents in three weeks or less.

The State Department said last week that it expected to issue 12 million passports this fiscal year, about 25% fewer than last year. In early December, it was forecasting 17 million passports for the year ending Sept. 30.

Demand has fallen so quickly that the State Department has made what an official called "painful reductions" in contract employees, those who perform tasks such as processing payments and keying in data. Brenda Sprague, the department's deputy assistant secretary for passport services, said that no cuts were planned "at this time" in the full-time passport staff, which validates the citizenship of applicants.

In California, home to more passport applicants than any other state, 36% fewer passports were issued to residents from Jan. 1 through Jan. 27 than during the same period in 2008, said Howard Josephs, customer service manager at the Los Angeles Passport Agency. December figures were down 32% year over year.

January was "bad, very bad," said John Kim, who manages a Los Angeles Mall studio that shoots passport photos. He said business was down 15% or more compared with January of last year.

But for Americans able to take advantage of lower-priced airfares and tour packages, a short window of opportunity has opened to get their passports quickly. "It's a fabulous time to apply," Sprague said.

Tougher border rules are scheduled to take effect June 1, and that will affect millions of people who travel by car. The key change would require Americans to show a passport, a new ID called a passport card or other high-security ID to cross the Mexican and Canadian borders.

Two years ago, the U.S. began requiring passports for travelers flying back from those countries, as well as from the Caribbean and Bermuda, and applicants overwhelmed the State Department. Processing fell months behind, thwarting thousands of trips and prompting the government to delay tougher rules until June 1.

Will there be another last-minute rush?

"We really don't know . . . the extent to which [travelers] may decide on May 1 or June 1, 'Hey, I'm not properly documented,' " Sprague said. She said her department didn't anticipate a rush but was prepared to handle one.

Since then, the department has ramped up staffing and added facilities, including a printing and mailing center in Tucson last year. Its Western Passport Center will open there in June, and three new regional passport offices will open this spring in Detroit, Minneapolis and Dallas. The expansions will enable the department to handle 30 million passport applications a year, officials said.

The State Department estimates that 90 million passport documents are in circulation and that more than 28% of the U.S. population has one.

To gauge future demand, the State Department monitors the volume of applications and works with the Gallup polling organization, Sprague said. But polls pose a problem.

"What we tend to see is that people correctly estimate they are going to get a passport," she said, "but they incorrectly estimate when they plan to get a passport."

To encourage them to take action, the State Department has begun advertising the June 1 changes on a flashing screen, with a countdown clock, that pops up when visitors click on "Passports for U.S. Citizens" on its website for travelers, www.travel.state.gov.

The new rules, for instance, besides affecting land crossings, will also require cruise passengers, in many cases, to carry passports or other secure documents when traveling to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean or Bermuda.

Besides a passport, you can also use a passport card, which is cheaper than a passport ($45 instead of $100 for an adult), to reenter the U.S. from these destinations by land or sea but not by air. For details on applying for either document, visit www.travel.state.gov.

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jane.engle@latimes.com

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