Passport seekers flood the system

Record applications build backlog, delays

March 17, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Her peers are probably at an exotic beach somewhere, having a wild time during that annual pilgrimage of party-hungry college students known as spring break.

But Camille Petty has spent much of her week at the post office.

Along with nearly two dozen eager travelers, the second-year Peabody Institute piano student spent a morning this week at Baltimore's main post office applying for a passport.

She needs it for a fellowship to study musicology in Moscow this summer. But like a record number of Americans with dreams of traveling abroad, she must wait.

Frustrated applicants are clogging passport acceptance offices nationwide in numbers never before seen, creating a backlog that has extended the typical wait time of about six weeks to 10, according to the U.S. Department of State. Even the government's so-called expedited process - which costs extra - is taking much more time these days.

January through April is peak application season, but this year, new rules requiring passports for travelers flying between the United States and the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada have exacerbated the load. The requirements, which went into effect in late January, are the first in a series of sweeping documentation changes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Travelers accustomed to flying into Mexico or Canada with only a driver's license and birth certificate will now need passports. In addition, passports will be needed for U.S. citizens returning from Central and South America. Next year, they will be required for travelers crossing boarders by land and water.

In 2006, the State Department processed about 12 million passports. It expects that figure to jump to about 17 million by the end of this year, said Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services. So far, applications are up 50 percent over this time last year, she said.

"We are committed to meeting the travel needs of our customers, but obviously we have a lot more work in our system," she said. "We have known this demand was coming, and we are meeting it. We appreciate everyone's patience."

Barrett said the agency plans to hire 150 more workers by the end of 2008. She said people scheduled to travel within two weeks might apply through one of the State Department's 17 passport agency offices nationwide, which include an office in Washington.

Desperate travelers are shelling out extra cash to private expediter companies to get their passports faster. Clients mail documents to the company, and the expediters hand-deliver the paperwork to passport offices.

"We are getting frantic calls," said Fatemeh LeTellier, director of marketing for Travel Document Systems. "People use companies such as ours because they are facing a brick wall and have no other options."

But even expediters are caught in the backlog. Travel Document Systems' two-to-three day service now takes closer to two weeks, said LeTellier. It also offers a 24-hour service, which for a new passport costs $307. Still, the company makes no promises about delivery times.

"Guarantee is a very strong word, because we're dealing with a government entity," LeTellier said.

Numerous Baltimore area post offices accept applications, but only a handful, including the main office downtown, accommodate people without appointments.

These days, lines start forming outside the massive Fayette Street office at 8 a.m., even though the sole passport attendant does not receive customers until 9:30 a.m.

The office has three clerks trained to handle passports, but they do not work on the same days. In a push to accommodate demand, an additional clerk is being trained to process requests, said Freda Sauter, a spokeswoman with the postal service.

Customers take a number and wait, but because of the volume of applicants, on some days the office stops accepting applicants as early as noon.

Petty arrived last week at 3 p.m., but a clerk told her there were no more slots available, she said. Petty returned another day, but she said someone told her the clerk was on lunch hour.

She arrived at 9 a.m., determined, albeit weary.

"I'm irritated and I'm tired; I just want to go to bed," said Petty, 19, as she sat crouched in a corner, a cell phone in one hand, an envelope of precious documents in the other.

"I've seen the same people all week," she said. "We all say, `How are you?' It's great because we all can commiserate."

Annoyed, some applicants turn away and leave; a handful of patient souls bring newspapers or schoolwork. Some chide each other about their favorite teams to win the NCAA men's basketball championship, or make light of having to fake a sick day at work to complete their applications.

Others swap stories about their fast-approaching trips: a once-in-a-lifetime sea voyage to the Arctic Circle, a best friend's wedding in Jamaica and a wine tour throughout Spain.

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