U.S. Customs and Border Protection Causes Massive Airport Mayhem on Labor Day Weekend

These are the pictures your government doesn’t want you to see.

But they depict the scene on Sunday afternoon as several thousand Americans waited more than an hour for the privilege of re-entering their homeland with their valid U.S. passports in the middle of the busy Labor Day weekend.

This system is broken, taxpayers. The bureaucrats need to do better.

For a while, in fact, it appeared they were: Travel industry analysts had sounded the alarm earlier this summer when hours-long pre-boarding security delays stranded passengers and ruined vacations.

At that time, the Transportation Safety Administration vowed to hire more agents to handle the busy summer season and, by many reports, the TSA has improved its intake system.

But the delays remain on the other end. Not to go all “first-person” on you, but I returned from a trip abroad on Sunday at 4:15 p.m. and was promptly sent into the U.S. Customs and Border Protection rings of hell: endlessly looping ribbons of humanity heading towards the officers who stamp your passport.

I took some pictures to document the scene and promptly got yelled at by a border guard, whom I thanked for helping me write the lede of this story.

Finally, when I got to the front of the line, there was more, not less, mayhem because the agency has installed dozens of machines to take your picture and scan your passport. Let me rephrase that: the agency has installed dozens of machines that require you to take your own picture and to scan your own passport. This system is flawed. First, a poorly trained agent tells you to, “Just take the first open machine you find,” which leads to lines at some machines and vacancies at others because no one’s monitoring who goes where. How come Trader Joe’s can manage lines better than the government (that’s a rhetorical question, of course)?

Then, I finally got to the machine itself.

In an effort to replace highly paid agents with kiosks, the feds have made it worse. Ever watch an 80-year-old at an ATM? That’s about as well as most fliers handle this system. Even reasonably techno-savvy people have no idea what to do, as they are likely encountering this system for the first time.

I, for one, had never scanned a passport before. I had never been asked to grab a handle and position my head inside a silhouette of a normal-shaped head and press a button on a TV screen to take a selfie.

I asked the Customs and Border Protection people what’s going on, but they were off for Labor Day and didn’t get back to me to explain how it is possible that I could get off a plane at 4:15 p.m. yet not be through customs until 6 p.m.

One thing I know they’ll tell me is that I should have signed up for the agency’s Global Entry system, a pre-approved “trusted traveler” program that costs $100 and requires advance screening for “low-risk” travelers. Indeed, had I paid the $100 for the first-class service, I would have skipped the entire line at JFK on Sunday.

It’s a great system — if you believe that the government should discriminate on the basis of class. But the Global Entry system is nothing but the rich being allowed to buy themselves out of a hassle that the rest of us are forced to endure. To me, it’s the same principal that allowed the wealthy buy their way out of the Civil War draft. At least then there were riots.

Instead of offering the wealthy better service, the government should ensure equal — and high-quality — service for all.

But by appeasing the rich, a scary federal agency buys the silence of the powerful. Indeed, during my time on line on Sunday, I heard plenty of people complaining to each other — but when they got to the uniformed personnel themselves, no one said a word to the guards.

Of course not — the line to be stripped search and detained moves even slower!

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