Mobile Passport App Eases Congestion at Miami Int'l

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

In February, customers at Miami International Airport (MIA) began using a new mobile app designed to ease long lines at U.S. Customs stations. Although data is still being collected, preliminary reports indicate that wait times have been cut in half.   

The Mobile Passport Control app allows passengers to enter and submit their passport and Customs declaration information via tablets or smartphones, instead of using traditional paper forms. The new app, which works on Apple and Android devices, is the result of a partnership between U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) and Airside Mobile, the app's developer.

MIA is only the second U.S. airport to offer the new Customs option to customers. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) served as the program's pilot location last summer.

Two groups of passengers may use the app: U.S. citizens with a valid U.S. passport, and Canadian citizens with a valid Canadian passport and B1 or B2 visa status. After downloading the app, eligible travelers are prompted to set up a profile using information from their passport. Families traveling together can create multiple profiles. The app does not require pre-approval, and is free.  

Given the nature and volume of its traffic, MIA is a logical location for the new processing option. Debbie Shore, who managed the app project for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, notes that MIA is the second-busiest U.S. airport for international passenger traffic. The federal inspection facility in its North Terminal handles an average of 20,000 international passengers per day. 

"It is the single-busiest federal inspection facility in the country," Shore elaborates. "Our Customs area is always packed - especially between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. So anything we can do to ease congestion is much appreciated."

Project: Mobile Customs App
Location: Miami Int'l Airport
App Name: Mobile Passport Control
Launched: Feb. 2015
Available to: Passengers with valid U.S. passports; Canadian passport holders with B1 or B2 visa status
Airport Infrastructure: Wi-Fi or regular cellular service; signage; scanners for Customs machines
Scanning Equipment: IER
User Requirements: Mobile phone or tablet, Apple or Android 
Key Benefits: Speeds Customs processing (in dedicated & other lines) by allowing app users to fill out forms online before reaching the checkout area. Initial results show wait times are cut in half.

Pre-Approval Process

Before CBP authorized the use of the app, it first had to ensure the security of individual passengers and the United States as a whole. "It was a lot of work developing this app with our partners; we had to worry about security and privacy rights," relates Migdalia Arteaga, a public affairs officer at CBP's Miami field office. "So far, it has exceeded our expectations in Miami, and has worked very, very well. It allows each officer to see several more passengers per hour.

"We are confident the new MPC (Mobile Passport Control) app will continue to expedite entry into the United States for U.S. citizens, while maintaining our high levels of security."

Like Shore, Arteaga characterizes the transition to the new app as smooth. "There have been no real problems retraining our officers," she reports. "All an agent really needs to do is ask the passengers to put their phone, with the QR (quick response) code receipt, on the scanner. It will set off either a red light or a green light. In addition, many U.S. citizens who are international travelers already are used to using kiosks in which a traveler swipes his or her passport and then gives it to the Customs officer."

The equipment passengers use to scan the receipts on their cellphones and transmit data to Customs officers is provided by IER, which also produces units for scanning boarding passes at security checkpoints and gates. Additionally, the company teamed with app developer Airside Mobile to provide MIA with automated passport control kiosks that use similar infrastructure as the new Mobile Passport Control app and include biometric readers. 

"As with the check-in process, some passengers will want to use a mobile-based application, while others will prefer a kiosk-based interaction," explains IER Vice President and General Manager Herve Muller. 

While using the app has been quick and easy for travelers and CBP officers, getting it approved by all the necessary partners was a long, grueling process. "It took two years in development, with many, many meetings, to get the product the way we wanted it," reflects Matthew Cornelius, ACI-NA's managing director of air policy. "Our main challenge was that international travel continues to grow, but we had to meet the needs of the CBP in terms of security and user-friendliness."  

Hans Miller, chief executive of Airside Mobile, estimates that his company's app development team had hundreds of meetings with CBP and ACI-NA. "In all, there were probably more than 100 people involved with this project," Miller estimates. "But we had a great team, and everyone was very dedicated to making it work."

Not surprisingly, information security was a crucial challenge. "We do not store any personal data on our system," Miller says. "The traveler profile is only stored on the phone, where it is encrypted and protected by a Mobile Passport PIN. That is in addition to the phone's built-in security protection."

Refinements & Replication

As the second airport to use the app, MIA benefited from lessons learned during the app's launch at ATL. "When the pilot program started last August, our whole project staff was there, interviewing passengers as well as airport staff and CBP staff," Cornelius relates. 

One of the elements Airside Mobile was asked to improve was the form itself. "People kept making typos as they filled out the forms electronically on their phones," Miller explains. "We changed the design a bit, so a warning line tells the user if there is an inconsistency or obvious mistakes."

Changes were also needed after Apple released its iPhone 6 and new operating system.

Despite a few challenges with the Google version, Cornelius says that the app's introduction at MIA went fairly smoothly. "Overall, things are going very well," he reports.

Feedback from the two airports currently using the app - and their customers and airlines - has been very positive. "Data from Miami is still being collected, but it seems anecdotally as if the app cuts the time of waiting in Customs lines by about 50 percent (compared to) manual processing," Cornelius says. "In Atlanta, Delta surveyed all of its passengers, and the satisfaction level was very high."

Realizing the direct benefits to them, some airlines are encouraging customers to use the new app. "Delta and American are promoting it to their passengers," reports Cornelius, noting that carriers experience complications when customers miss flights because they're stuck in line at Customs.

With support from airlines and travelers alike, the app may become a sought-after customer convenience. Chicago O'Hare International added Mobile Passport Control in mid-April, and Seattle and San Francisco will reportedly be the next markets. "By the end of 2016, up to 20 airports hope to have the program online," Cornelius reports.

MIA's Shore has good news for other airports interested in taking their Customs process online. "Your international terminal does not really need Wi-Fi; basic cellular service works fine," she reports. "The app requires very little memory to fill out the simple questionnaire."

Beyond connectivity, airports need scanner equipment for Customs and signage to promote the service, adds Cornelius. "Mobile Passport Control offers flexibility with relatively little investment," he notes. 
Shore, an enthusiastic advocate of the program, hopes many airports will begin offering the app. "The more U.S. citizens who use Mobile Passport Control, the better for airports," she explains. "It will free up the wait for international passengers arriving in the United States."

At MIA, the new app may lead to more programs for other international travelers arriving in the United States. "This summer, we expect to begin offering our automated passport control kiosks to all international travelers with B1 or B2 visas," says Shore. "Eventually, we hope that up to 90 percent of our passengers can be processed on some sort of electronic machine. This will be very big for MIA, due to our large number of international travelers."  


Ready to Go Paperless?

Using the Mobile Passport Control app requires travelers to follow five steps:

1) Download the Mobile Passport Control app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store prior to arriving back in the United States.

2) Create a profile using information listed on his/her passport.

3) Complete the "New Trip" section upon arrival in the United States.

4) Submit Customs declaration form through the app to receive an electronic receipt with an encrypted quick response code. (Receipt expires four hours after being issued.)

5) Present passport and smartphone or tablet with digital bar-coded receipt to a CBP officer.

Personnel at Miami International Airport encourage users to download the app and create their profiles before leaving the United States. That way, they will only have to fill out the "My Trip" section when returning. 


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