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How to avoid long lines at U.S. Customs

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg offers advice.

Few things in the travel experience remind you of how far we haven’t come, than when, usually after a very long flight — we arrive at our foreign destination — or return from one — only to have to stand in a long (and lately, longer) line to go through immigration and customs "clearance."

But it’s a problem with a very easy solution.

First, let’s talk about staffing. When they built the international terminal at Los Angeles International in time for the 1984 Summer Olympics, airport authorities boasted that the facility would feature 70 inspection stations for immigration and customs officials to process arriving passengers.

One small problem: Not once in the last 23 years have I ever seen more than 30 of these stations manned at any one time. The same is now true at JFK in New York, Miami, and other major international gateway airports in the United States.

The result: Lines of as much as an hour — or more — to present your documents, and that’s even before you get your luggage and wait in another long line.

And, because of new security protocols required by the Department of Homeland Security, it’s even worse if you’re not a U.S. citizen. Not surprisingly, recent surveys of foreign passengers reveals a distinct drop in visitors to the U.S. — and one of the reasons cited is how difficult we make the initial "welcome."

It’s just as bad overseas for us. On a recent trip, I landed in Buenos Aires at 10 a.m. I cleared customs at 11:45! There were 20 inspection stations for immigration and customs officers — only two were manned.

OK, so much about staffing. But here’s the most frustrating part. We already know that it is a time-consuming, time-wasting process. But it’s made even more frustrating when you discover there is already an effective, efficient and economic solution to that line.

The solution
And, believe it or not, we’ve not only implemented it for years, but it works perfectly. It’s called "pre-clearance." If you’ve ever flown to the U.S. from Canada, Bermuda, or the Bahamas, then you know all about pre-clearance. Once you check in for your flight, and your bags are tagged to your final destination, you then walk through U.S. customs and immigration already in place in that country. And once you’re cleared there, you’re cleared. Period. When you return to the United States., there are no lines. You simply go to baggage claim, get your bags and go home, or go to another gate and make your connecting flight. No more lines. You’ve saved nearly two hours in the process. Because you consolidated all the lines into one — at your originating airport.

Can anyone give me an argument why this can’t happen in other high volume, high traffic international destinations?

If security is part of that argument, consider this: Under current rules and regulations, before any international flight heading to the U.S. can take off, each airline is now required by the Department of Homeland Security to electronically transmit the passenger manifest to U.S. security officials for inspection — to make sure no one on the no-fly list is on board. Conceivably, this same list (which also contains passport numbers recorded at the time each passenger checked in) can be shared with Immigration and Customs.

Once that happens, it’s just a matter of staffing U.S. Customs/Immigration officials overseas, just as we already do in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Canada.

Is cost an argument against this? Then consider this: The actual cost of implementing these pre-clearance programs is more than offset by the savings to airlines and airports of misconnected passengers, misconnected and lost baggage and expensive congestion at airports like JFK and, especially, airports such as Miami. How many more foreign visitors would then come and spend their money in the U.S. because they would then be less intimidated by the mere process of arriving?

Remember, the pre-clearance system doesn’t need to be tested. It already works.

The only line we should be standing on is the queue to lobby our elected representatives — many of whom get to bypass long lines when they fly — to convince them this approach is a win-win for all concerned. And in the end, it’s not just about cost — it’s about value and long term good will.

It’s one thing to say that the technology doesn’t exist. But when it does exist, when it already works and when implementing it is easy; when it makes our lives easier, has no security downside and has a positive economic impact, there is no excuse for not marrying technology with common sense.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .