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U.S. passport demand hits record levels

When Julie Conely applied for a passport the first time, she got it in a week. That was 20 years ago. It wasn't that easy the second time around. Conely, who owns Monarch Travel and Tours in East Grand Forks, applied for a passport at the end of ...

When Julie Conely applied for a passport the first time, she got it in a week.

That was 20 years ago.

It wasn't that easy the second time around. Conely, who owns Monarch Travel and Tours in East Grand Forks, applied for a passport at the end of January along with her husband and daughter for a vacation to Cancun, Mexico.

She had been tracking the status of the three passport applications online and discovered her husband and daughter were not scheduled to receive their passports until five days after their April departure date.

Conely contacted the State Department, and at one point, she said she even was advised to change her family's travel plans. In the end, her family got the passports and won't miss the trip but the process did create some added stress for the travel agent, who now is contacting her clients to make them aware of passport-processing delays.


"If you are going within two to three weeks, call in, and get it expedited. Don't horse around with it," she said.

Steve Royster, a spokesman for consular affairs at the State Department, said travelers should allow 10 weeks for routine processing and four weeks for expedited processing. Applicants typically can expect to wait four to six weeks for routine processing.

The added wait time can be a headache for travelers. Conely said one of her clients missed a flight to Mexico in early March because his passport arrived the day after he was supposed to depart. The client ended up booking a one-way ticket to salvage the vacation.

While none of Conely's other clients have missed flights because of the delays, another client's passport arrived Monday. The person's vacation begins today.

For some vacation packages, missing a flight can mean losing thousands of dollars, Conely said.

Growing issue

The delays are a growing issue in Minnesota. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., hired an additional staff member March 12 to work exclusively on Minnesota passport cases. A spokesman for Coleman said the senator's office has fielded about 600 requests related to passport delays in recent weeks.

"The passport situation at the State Department right now is a mess," Coleman said in a written statement. "My staff and I have heard from hundreds of constituents who are facing the potential loss of significant money and cherished family time through no fault of their own."


Demand is upThe reason for the delays is simple demand is up. In fiscal year 2006, the State Department issued 12 million passports. That number is expected to increase to 17 million in fiscal year 2007.

January through April is peak passport processing season because people are preparing for spring and summer vacations, according to the State Department. On top of that, the United States is in the middle of two phases of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Starting in January, everyone traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda is required to present a passport, Air NEXUS card, U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Document or Form I-551 Alien Registration Card.

As early as Jan. 1, 2008, the same requirements could go into effect for people traveling by land and sea.

Push for extensionFor Coleman, who is pushing for an 18-month extension before the land and sea rule is implemented, the current delays could be a hint at future passport-related problems.

"This situation also illustrates how disruptive the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative's land border implementation could be if the administration seriously intends to use a January 2008 deadline to require a passport or other document to drive to Canada," he said.

Individuals with passport concerns can check the status of their applications online at http://travel.state.gov or through the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778. However, Royster suggested people wait to call the information center until they are within two weeks of their departure date.

"We want to keep that line as free as possible for people who have urgent travel needs," he said.


The call center is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. In addition, State Department employees are putting in overtime and even volunteering to help keep up with the passport demand, Royster said.

In April, a new processing center will open in Arkansas. The facility could produce as many as 10 million passports a year.

Edison reports on business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext. 107, or jedison@gfherald.com .

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