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At Logan, more staff means less time in customs lines

Travelers at Logan are benefiting from more US Customs staff.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The long wait times to clear passport control that travelers endured at Logan Airport have been sharply reduced since the state’s congressional delegation and business leaders pressured federal authorities to increase staffing at the international terminal.

Earlier this year, travelers frequently waited as long as three hours to get through the US Customs and Border Protection inspection area at Logan’s Terminal E. But in the past month, the average maximum time is down to about 50 minutes, according to data released by the agency, while the number of agents available to process travelers is up.

The additional staffing and additional measures were in response to a testy letter US Senator Edward Markey and other congressional representatives fired off in June to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees US Customs. Local business groups sent similar complaints, saying the delays threatened to curb tourism and could hurt efforts to get airlines to add more international flights to and from Boston.

“Boston wants to put out the welcome mat to the world, and having a 90-minute to three-hour wait to come through customs sends just the opposite message,” said Markey, who met with customs and Massachusetts Port Authority officials in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the problem. “It’s improved significantly in the last couple months, but there’s more progress we can make.”

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Customs and Border Protection officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The delays threatened to undermine the progress that the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, has made in wooing more international flights to the airport. The airport offers nonstop flights to 46 foreign destinations, including recently added service to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv. Massport says Logan received 200,000 more international passengers during the first five months of 2015, compared with the same period a year earlier.

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Arriving passengers made their way through Logan Airport’s international terminal in Boston on Thursday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

However, all those additional passengers are funneled into a single passport area, with as many as eight international flights arriving in succession. The delays peaked in June, during the beginning of the busy summer season. Frustrated passengers sometimes stood in line for as long as three hours during the peak period, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., before customs officers verified their passports. That put Logan in the same league as major hub airports such as Miami, JFK in New York, and Washington Dulles in Virginia, where waits sometimes stretch beyond two hours.

“We apologize for the bad experience that some folks had in June,” said Massport’s chief executive, Thomas Glynn. “Fortunately, with the aid of Congress, we got right on it and put some short-term fixes in place.”

Massport officials attributed the bottlenecks to a US Customs staffing shortage. Customs officials admitted they were shorthanded because of funding constraints, but also blamed Massport for scheduling too many planes to land at the same time.

It appears the congressional scolding produced results: A “jump team” of several customs officials from other cities visited Logan in June and implemented a number of changes, including separate lanes for US and non-US citizens, and for travelers with visas and those without visas. The agency also lifted a cap on overtime hours for passport agents and reallocated funding to pay for additional time during busy periods.

US Customs also reassigned administrative employees to work as passport agents when lines get too long.

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For its part, Massport is paying a State Police trooper to guard an area previously supervised by a customs agent, freeing up the agent to check passports, instead.

Massport is also hiring more customer service agents to greet arriving passengers; those workers hand out water bottles and help passengers prepare their paperwork before they get to the front of the line.

New digital kiosks are also helping to cut down on the delays, officials said.

The results of the changes are a substantial increase in the number of passport booths that are open and a corresponding decline in wait times.

But Glynn cautioned that the number of international passengers arriving at Logan is expected to continue growing.

To keep wait times from climbing again, they said, customs will need to permanently assign more agents to Boston. The agency has requested more funding from Congress to hire an additional 2,600 agents across the country, and Markey and others have lobbied for some of them to be assigned to Boston.

“Hopefully, we dodged a bullet for August and September, but next May will soon be upon us, and I assume there will be another increase” in the number of passengers, Glynn said.

“With all our success on the business end, we need to make sure customs is keeping pace in terms of their ability to process folks.”


Dan Adams can be reached
at dadams@globe.com.