Lost in transit

Even U.S. pre-clearance at Toronto is feeling the pain.

Even U.S. pre-clearance at Toronto is feeling the pain. (Source: CBC)

Planning a trip abroad this summer, or expecting friends or relatives to come visit? Either way, it might be best for would-be travelers to avoid transiting through the United States until the U.S. government’s financial situation improves.

There was once a time when passing through the United States en route between Canada and a third country was a good deal for money. Sure, you had the hassle of an extra trip through Customs and Immigration checks in both directions, but that wasn’t so bad if the price was right.

In fact, the price often was right: Delta’s and United’s fares are often noticeably lower than Air Canada’s on flights between Winnipeg and many popular non-U.S. foreign destinations, and their respective Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago hubs are essentially no further out of the way than Air Canada’s Toronto hub is.

The U.S. budget crisis, however, has added a wrinkle to travelers’ plans. Staff shortages have slowed down U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing times at major hub airports routinely used by Canadians. Average processing time at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 5 during the busy 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. hour rose from 16 minutes in April 2009 to 49 minutes in April 2013. At Minneapolis/St. Paul’s main terminal building, average processing times during the 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. rush doubled from 12 minutes in April 2009 to 25 minutes in April 2013.

Some have reported even longer waits, as these comments posted about Chicago O’Hare on the Skytrax airport/airline review web site indicate:

  • “After waiting for 45 minutes in the incredible line up which appeared to consist of a thousand people I pleaded with the girl directing US residents and she let me into this line.”
  • “It took 2 hours to get through the queue plus the 45 minutes in the corridor. Many people were missing connecting flights.”
  • “Arrived at O’Hare from London yesterday to face longest immigration line that I’ve ever seen in many years of travelling worldwide. In essence, it took me 3 hours of waiting to be processed! Yes, I repeat 3 hours!”

Some of the most scathing remarks, however, came from Lufthansa chairman Jurgen Weber this past March, after his wife suggested they avoid traveling through the U.S. in the future due to long line-ups at both Customs and Immigration and at airport security:

Jurgen Weber, chairman of Lufthansa’s supervisory board, told reporters Tuesday that a Transportation Security Administration line that morning for a flight to Washington from New York’s LaGuardia airport was hundreds of yards long.

And Weber said Customs and Border Protection lines coming into the U.S. also are long for foreign travelers.

Weber belongs to Global Entry, a U.S. background-check program to speed up Customs and Border Protection processing from overseas. But Lufthansa finds Customs waits at New York’s JFK airport are more than two hours for its passengers, he said.

“Huge concerns,” Weber said. “It’s unbelievable that this nation at the helm of technology thinks about reducing the number of air-traffic controllers, the number of security people at the airport.”

Longer lines stem from $85 billion in federal spending cuts that run from March 1 through Sept. 30.

For its share, the Department of Homeland Security cut overtime for Customs and TSA, which already lengthened lines at busy times of day.

[ . . . ]

“Everybody is working hard to give the passenger a superior experience and at the point of arrival, after a wonderful flight, you are stuck for three or four hours,” said Nils Haupt, a Lufthansa spokesman. “This is really unacceptable.”

[ . . . ]

Weber said his wife suggested Tuesday that they avoid U.S. travel in the future.

“They cannot understand it,” Weber said of passengers facing the waits. “I hope many people fly to the United States as customers of Lufthansa, but we also have to protect our customers.” 

Germany’s Lufthansa, the largest European member of the Star Alliance, offers single-ticket bookings between Winnipeg and many European and other foreign destinations through passenger-sharing agreements with Air Canada and United Airlines.

A two-hour wait to get through U.S. border controls on the return trip, though, would likely cause a missed connection. Frankfurt to Winnipeg flights  via Chicago listed on Lufthansa’s web site for July 10, for example, offer connection times of 2h05m, 2h32m and 2h55m respectively.

Lufthansa’s U.S. partner United, on the other hand, remains wildly delusional about connection times. One ridiculous example offered for sale on United’s web site as part of a London-to-Winnipeg itinerary has the trans-Atlantic flight arriving at New York’s Newark airport at 11:45 a.m., and presumes that the passenger will be able to disembark, clear border formalities, re-check his/her luggage, pass through security and then find and get to the gate at least 20 minutes before departure to catch the 1 p.m. onward flight to Chicago — a mere 75 minutes to make an international-to-domestic connection at one of North America’s most notoriously congested airports! 

Who cares about realistic scheduling when you’ve already got the passenger’s money in your pocket?

Canadian airlines and airports have begun to benefit from what ails the major U.S. hub airports, not only by retaining more Canadian passengers, but by offering slightly better processing for U.S. passengers transiting through Canada.

Toronto’s Terminal 1, with Air Canada as its anchor tenant, has begun allowing passengers coming off of international flights to connect to U.S.-bound flights without having to go through full Canadian border formalities, as long as they can do so without officially entering Canada.

As these passengers are then processed through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office at Toronto airport before entering a specially reserve block of gates, they can then disembark at a domestic gate on arrival in the U.S., bypassing the long lines at Chicago O’Hare and other global gateway airports.

Non-Canadians and non-Americans should, nevertheless, check Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s web site before booking any connections through Canada to ensure that they obtain any transit visas that still might be required. There have been reports of transit passengers missing their connections in Canada due to unobtained visas. Unlike many popular global hub airports, such as Amsterdam, Dubai and Singapore, neither Canadian nor U.S. airports allow passengers to make international-to-international connections without clearing any border formalities.

Any improvement to making international connections through either Canada or the U.S. would be beneficial to consumers by encouraging competition. It would also allow airlines to take full advantage of the ongoing boom in international travel, which is growing by leaps and bounds while domestic travel demand does hardly much better than GIC rates.

Canada is moving in the right direction by easing the process for passengers making International-to-U.S. connections through the bypass system set up in Toronto, and through the Travel Without Visa program established for U.S.-bound travelers at selected Canadian airports.

Traveling to (or back to) Canada via the U.S. will always remain slightly more complicated by the fact that U.S. airports generally do not have segregated departure gates to keep international and domestic passengers separate, meaning that transit passengers must complete all U.S. border formalities before catching their onward flights.

An express lane for passengers who have boarding passes for their connecting flights might help, though. But most helpful of all would be a resolution of America’s budgetary politics woes and an easing on the hardship it has imposed on that country’s airports — and visitors.

If you’re traveling back to Canada from a third country via the U.S. this summer, or know of someone planning on traveling such a route, leave 3 hours or more between an international arrival at the U.S. airport and the departure for the onward domestic or Canada-bound flight.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Lost in transit

  1. John Dobbin says:

    I wonder if budget cuts in the U.S. can only make a bad situation worse.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    The cuts have been aggravating the situation by forcing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to cut down on overtime and probably not replace employees who leave. (I recall reading once that a study on job satisfaction in the U.S. public service ranked CBP dead-last.)

    The U.S. has also been surprisingly slow to embrace airport privatization. While other airports are free to raise dedicated funds through user fees (unpopular as they might be, but they work!) and find other ways of encouraging investment, many U.S. airports still have to go beg for government money.

    Those that carry political weight, such as MSP thanks to the long-standing desire to keep Northwest/Delta happy, are still presentable. Others look and feel like Greyhound stations and even have to turn away airlines at peak travel times because there’s literally no room left for either the additional passengers or aircraft. Yet they can neither modernize nor expand because their governments are broke or they are too easily out-lobbied for government funds.

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