It’s been a largely unheralded fix: Federal and state officials have cut the time it takes to get through US Customs at Logan International Airport since waits of up to three hours created a furor.
But a host of new flights starting in the spring will further crowd an often packed Terminal E, which last year handled a record number of international travelers: more than 5.5 million arrivals and departures, according to the data released Friday by the Massachusetts Port Authority. The total topped 2014’s by more than 600,000 passengers.
It is not uncommon to have more than five flights land within the same hour, forcing passengers to move through the airport cheek by jowl. Customs and Border Protection officials have done all they can to reduce the wait times, said spokesman Sean D. Smith. But the enormous flow of traffic is compounded by Massport’s addition of international flights.
“I think the crowds will always be a challenge until we expand the terminal space,” Smith said. “We’ve improved staffing at the terminal, but that hasn’t helped improve the footprint of the building.”
Despite the growing throngs of international travelers, Massport has not expanded the number of gates at Terminal E since it was built in 1974, said Thomas Glynn, Massport’s chief executive. Crowding and wait times got so bad last summer that the Massachusetts congressional delegation demanded changes on behalf of outraged travelers who said it was taking three hours and sometimes longer to get through the airport.
The problem abated after the addition of more customs staff and about 20 new automated passport control terminals, bringing the total to 48, Massport and customs officials said. The terminals check passport information and take photos of travelers, reducing the time speont with a customs agent.
Massport, however, has continued to add international flights, including the announcement last week that five low-cost carriers would offer 23 new flights a week, mostly from the international terminal.
Massport officials said the flights represent a tiny fraction of the 7,000 weekly flights out of the airport. Glynn said he thinks the terminal can handle the increased traffic primarily because the flights will not leave at peak times: 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“We’re not dropping them into the busiest time in the schedule,” Glynn said. “We think that these can be accommodated.”
Glynn also said Massport is seeking approval to expand the international terminal to 1.42 million square feet, from 800,000 square feet. The $550 million proposal is under review by federal environmental officials, and construction is probably at least a year away.
“There’s a problem with the physical size of Terminal E,” Glynn said. “The economy is flourishing, a lot of industries here are growing, and therefore it’s creating more demand for airline traffic in general, but specifically international.”
Glynn said he met last week with the Massachusetts High Technology Council, an industry group representing many of the state’s largest tech companies, to address the concerns about air travel and Logan’s capacity issues.
The airport is undertaking a $30 million project to build gates that will accommodate the Airbus A380. The world’s largest passenger plane, it carries people on two decks. But Terminal E’s gates don’t accommodate planes with two tiers. Massport officials said the project, due to be completed by year’s end, will not further strain the international terminal. Although the work will allow some airlines to carry bigger loads of passengers, airlines will fly such planes less often, he said.
Last summer, some passengers waited three hours or longer to get through Customs; Massport said that in June, more than 30,000 passengers experienced average wait times of more than an hour.
‘There’s a problem with the physical size of Terminal E.’Thomas Glynn, Massport CEO
Summer is also one of the busiest seasons for international travel, Glynn said, yet customs at the terminal was understaffed, creating a bottleneck.
Massport data show that wait times in November were down significantly; fewer than 2,500 people waited more than an hour, on average, to get through customs that month.
At the time, customs officials criticized Massport for scheduling too many flights too tightly. Glynn said Massport has reviewed schedules “and tried to manage that a little better.” But he said such problems are not always easily fixed, because an international flight of 13 hours can easily land 30 minutes early or late.
“It can jam up,” he said.
That’s been the experience of Newton resident David Martin, chair of medicine at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington and a associate director at the Royal College of Physicians in London. Martin travels overseas more than a dozen times a year, most recently on Martin Luther King Day, arriving at Logan from London in the early afternoon. He said three other trans-Atlantic flights, one from Germany and another from Asia, were disembarking at the same time, and the size of the crowd was alarming.
“From the plane’s door to the terminal was chock-a-block with people,” he said, recalling that airport employees struggled to manage the crowds by asking people to form lines against the wall. “It was worrisome.”
Henry Harteveldt, a founder and analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said such experiences could undermine the health of Logan if Massport does not move quickly.
Passengers can vent their frustrations on Facebook or Twitter, where they have the potential to go viral, or on a bevy of consumer websites.
Airlines may then pull back their flight offerings if they feel a terminal is maxed out.
It’s a problem at many airports across the United States that have not grown fast enough, he said, not just in Boston.
“People see long lines and large crowds at airports and they become concerned; they get that proverbial red line moment. It creates anxiety and stress,” he said, “even if the passengers are being processed efficiently. The optics are as important as anything else.”Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.