Statedepartment eases air passport requirements

Published on Thu, Jun 14, 2007 by eg Olson

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State department eases air passport requirements

By Meg Olson

Faced with an unexpected volume of passport applications the U.S. State Department is backing off on current passport requirement for all air travelers entering the country.

“We’ve faced a record-breaking demand for passports,” said assistant secretary for consular affairs Maura Harty during a June 8 announcement that U.S. travelers who have proof they have already applied for a passport can travel by air in North America and the Caribbean without one until the end of September.

“This increase in requests over and beyond even the enormous demand we anticipated has resulted in longer than expected processing times for passport applications. We recognize this has caused hardship for some Americans.”

In January 2007 all air travelers became subject to requirements for more secure travel documents, as mandated by Congress in 2004 through the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI).

Any one arriving in the U.S. by air, including U.S. citizens, needed a passport. In the first quarter of the 2007 fiscal year U.S. passport applications jumped 37 percent.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced it plans to make passports mandatory for entry at all land and sea ports as early as January 2008, which state department officials said is also pushing demand for passports.

The June 8 announcement, issued jointly with DHS, allows U.S. citizens to travel out of the country by air with a government-issued photo I.D., such as a drivers’ license, and official proof they have applied for a passport from the state department. Proof of a pending application is available at once passport fees have cleared the applicant’s bank.

Canadians traveling to the U.S. by air will continue to need a passport, but DHS public information officer Mike Milne said border officials could make exceptions. “We can on a case-by-case basis determine to waive requirements and parole someone in,” he said. “There is emergency travel, there are firefighters that work on one side of the border or another – there has been and will continue to be exigent circumstances and we have that authority.”

The passport requirement is only suspended for U.S. citizens through September 30.

State department officials announced a series of measures intended to get the standard processing time for a passport from where it is today, 10 to 12 weeks, back to the normal four-week processing time: a new mega-processing center in Arkansas, 260 new employees in three months working around the clock in three shifts.

Milne said the timeline to implement WHTI requirements at land and seaports would be finalized subject to comments received following a notice of proposed rulemaking he anticipates will be published in the Federal Register this month. “We intend to implement it as early as possible in 2008 but it will be based on that process,” he said.

In October 2006 the state department also submitted a proposed rule, not yet finalized, for a passport card, which would be less expensive than a book passport.

The department will also include relaxed documentary requirements for children in an upcoming notice of proposed rulemaking.