Self-Service Passport Readers Reduce Wait Times at O'Hare Int'l

Nicole Nelson
Published in: 

In an ongoing effort to improve the arrival process into the United States, the recent installation of Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks has proven to be a “game-changer” at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and a handful of other international hubs embracing the relatively new technology.

The expedited customs entry process was first activated for U.S. passport holders at Vancouver International Airport, where the system originated and was debuted last May as a substitute for the traditional paper-based declaration card route. Prior to U.S. Customs and Border Protection approving the Vancouver Airport Authority’s innovation in the States, the Chicago Department of Aviation took a gamble on the touch-screen kiosks in February 2013, when it committed to pioneering the APC system on U.S. soil to reduce wait times that Rosemarie Andolino, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, deemed deplorable.

“We had a terrible summer the previous year – just like most airports around the country – and we had to figure out a solution, because it was just unacceptable,” Andolino relates. “We wanted to improve our customers’ experience for the upcoming summer travel season because we couldn’t continue to welcome our international guests that way, nor our U.S. guests that were coming to our airport.”



Project: Automated Passport Control Kiosk
Location: Chicago O’Hare Int’l Airport
Airport Authority: Chicago Dept. of Aviation
System Provider: Vancouver Airport Authority
Project Timeline: Feb. - July 2013
Cost: $2 million
Key Benefit: Wait times during peak arrivals have decreased 33%; wait times of more than 1 hour have decreased 60%; frequency of missed connections has decreased dramatically

A meeting with ORD stakeholders that included air carriers, Customs and Border Protection, two Illinois senators and Chicago’s Congressional representative validated a $2 million investment in passport-reading equipment. ORD was approved to activate 32 APC kiosks for eligible U.S. passengers in July 2013; and the subsequent results have been resounding.

Shorter Wait Times

“Automated Passport Control takes the U.S. passport holder out of the main line, and allows us to use our Customs agents for our international guests, while our U.S. passport holders basically self-service,” explains Andolino. “By doing that, we have reduced our processing times dramatically. Wait times during peak arrival periods have been reduced by 33%.”

All passengers arriving on international flights are still routed to a Customs and Border Protection officer, she adds, but the total time to finalize processing for U.S. passport holders is minimized.
Since the APC debut, the number of passengers waiting more than one hour for Customs processing has been reduced by nearly 60%, and the incidence of passengers waiting over two hours has been nearly eliminated, reports Andolino.

Beyond improving customer service, the kiosks have also delivered compounding operational benefits.
“The big eye-opener apparent immediately was in the misconnecting passenger volumes,” says Andolino. ORD’s two major hub carriers, United and American Airlines, saw misconnects decrease by 62% and 76%, respectively. “We have had much happier customers as well as airlines, and that equates to real money, and real time,” she adds. 

Milton Uribe, Chicago station manager for Iberia Airlines of Spain, had a front row seat for the introduction of automated passport readers at ORD, and he considers the self-serve kiosks a positive catalyst for change. Uribe estimates that in 2012, up to 40% of the airline’s passengers missed their original connecting flights. “We were having a pretty good downfall,” he recalls. Since the implementation of APC in 2013, Uribe says that misconnections are down to about 8% or less. In addition to reducing customers’ frustration about rebooking, the airline is also saving a substantial amount of money previously spent on hotels and meal expenses for passengers stranded overnight, he notes. 

“We took a huge gamble,” says Uribe, of the decision to install APC equipment. “But we knew that it was going to work. We knew that it was going to be a game-changer; and it is. Now, every airport would like to follow through with what Chicago is doing.”

The success of automated passport readers at ORD has consequently paved the way for its use at Chicago Midway International, where six kiosks are expected to be operational by early 2014. Other airports have also taken notice of Chicago’s success with APC and are following suit. In October, John F. Kennedy International in New York debuted 40 kiosks purchased by Delta Air Lines. 

New Options

As the product that was quickest to market and first approved as a trusted product by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Vancouver Airport Authority’s APC unit has also sparked competition. Just before Thanksgiving, SITA premiered 36 of its APC kiosks at Miami International’s North Terminal.
Ken Pyatt, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, notes that the SITA/Vision-Box units can self-adjust to the height of each passenger and include biometric technology that the airport may deploy in the future to further enhance security.

Bells and whistles aside, Pyatt says APC kiosks have been effective in segregating the backlog of incoming passengers. “In general, our 36 kiosks collectively do the work of nine inspectors,” he reports. “That is a real benefit.”

As more APC units are deployed at U.S. airports, the program continues to expand. In addition to eligible U.S. passport holders, Canadians holding a B-1/B-2 visitor visa for business, pleasure or medical treatment may now use the automated kiosks.

“APC is a game-changer, as you can tell by (our) numbers,” says Chicago’s Andolino. “Now, with the addition of the Canadian passport visa holders and more to come, it really will continue to improve our facilities for international guests, and our local guests, people coming home, too.”


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