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LAX officials decry shortages of customs, immigration agents

Travelers face long waits on planes or in lines because of understaffing. The airport director has filed a formal complaint with the head of the customs agency.

November 19, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • A view of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
A view of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Shortages of customs and immigration agents at Los Angeles International Airport have been causing significant delays for thousands of travelers, forcing them to wait on their planes or stand in line for up to three hours before being processed, airport officials say.

The problem is a long-standing one for the nation's third-busiest airport, but it became so acute this summer that LAX officials formally complained to the head of the federal customs agency.

In an August letter, airport director Gina Marie Lindsey cited examples of understaffing and repeated delays, including several in which passengers waited on their planes about 40 minutes after long flights.

The correspondence to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan D. Bersin also noted that on one day in July only a third of the airport's 60 immigration booths were staffed and more than 2,700 international passengers had to be held on airliners because of processing delays.

One passenger, Sue Britt of Australia, complained to airport officials that after traveling 20 hours in September, she had to wait more than an hour in line to have her passport checked. She noted there were only two immigration agents on duty to process hundreds of passengers from her flight.

"Is the airport unaware of the number of people carried by a [Boeing] 747?" Britt wrote to airport officials. "In future flights, I will avoid LAX at all costs.... Unfortunately LAX creates a negative impression, one that surely extends to the city and the country it represents."

If the problem persists, Lindsey said, a multibillion-dollar investment to expand the Tom Bradley International Terminal and its federal inspection station will be wasted.

"I am getting more letters than I have ever gotten from passengers complaining about delays," Lindsey said. "We are spending a great deal of money for facilities that will present the best front door the city can possibly have.... We need to ensure that this will result in a better experience for the passenger."

Customs and Border Protection officials declined to be interviewed. But in a prepared statement, they said the agency strives to work closely with local officials to facilitate business and passenger travel at all ports of entry.

"While security concerns prevent us from discussing [agency] staffing levels at individual ports," they said, "we continually evaluate personnel needs to appropriately manage travel and trade."

Frank Clark, the former head of LAXTEC, an organization that represents international carriers at LAX, and officials for Airports Council International-North America said the shortages have been a chronic problem at LAX and other airports across the country, including John F. Kennedy in New York, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami and Chicago-O'Hare. They blame the shortages largely on federal budget problems.

Lindsey said she has not heard back from Bersin. Customs and Border Protection, however, has changed some of its top managers in the region, she noted.

Both local and federal officials have been exploring ways to expedite processing of international travelers. Though progress has been slow, Lindsey said, there has been some "improvement at the margins" since her letter was written.

"But at the end of the day," she added, "there will be a need for additional staffing."

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens traveling abroad can take steps to reduce delays, such as enrolling in the federal "Global Entry" program. Participation requires interviews, fingerprinting and background checks by customs agents. Qualified travelers can check into a kiosk instead of standing in immigration lines.

"It is another avenue to address the shortfall in staffing," said Debby McElroy, an airports council vice president.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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