Rethinking Passport Control in America

Earlier this week I flew from Mexico City to Lima with a two-hour connection in Bogota. When I landed at BOG, I noticed two signs: one for passport control and one for international connections. I followed the international connections sign, went through security (a rather painless process when shoes can stay on and liquids are not inspected), and made it to my Avianca gate in about ten minutes.
I informed the agent I had just stepped off a fight from Mexico City and asked if he could check me in for my flight to Lima. He refused, stating that I would need to go through passport control and get my boarding pass from the check-in lobby. Not liking his answer, I planned to play the ol` "hang up and try again" routine, but the agent ushered me downstairs to the international arrivals hall before I could find another agent to ask.
So I waited about 20 minutes to have my passport stamped, then another 10 minutes to get through the customs line (thankfully I noticed the transit desk and had an additional stamp added to my passport or else I would have had to pay the international departure tax), then another 20 minutes in line at Avianca check-in. After receiving my boarding pass, I went through passport control and security again (another 15 minutes) and found myself right where I started about 70 minutes earlier.
This got me to thinking about the arduous passport control system passengers must endure if they are making international connections in the United States. Sadly, the U.S. system resembles Mexico´s and Colombia´s where you must "enter" the country even if you are immediately departing to another country. Compare this to the ease of connecting through Schengen countries (for example) and it becomes clear that our method of transit is woefully complex (don´t get me started on the forms) and dare I say unnecessary.
There is no easy fix to this problem, especially at airports like LAX where it is impossible the way it is currently set up to employ a European-style passport control system. But the lack of an easy solution should not excuse policy makers from re-thinking the way we do passport control in America. It´s not like "undesirables" are secretly slipping into Europe through airports...
Sadly, I have no faith in the Department of Homeland Security and fear that our passport control system will only get worse: just look at the recent requirements added for U.S. citizens on domestic flights: DOB and gender is now required information when ticketing. Why our government is moving in a Soviet direction in the name of "security" continues to baffle me.
During a time when the U.S. could use all the tourism we can get, innovating the way we do passport control not only might increase tourism, but it will likely save tax dollars and still keep us "safe."


Juan Escobar November 28, 2009 at 01:50 pm

Hi. Great trip reports. On Transitting in Colombia, it is not really a matter of policy that you have to "enter" the country. If you had flown AV from MEX, you would not have had to go through the whole rigmarole of checkingin at the hall. Going through "international connections" would have worked just fine. I guess AV must have its own staff, and they do deal as easily for flights with DL, AF and AC. Sadly not any other.

zbenye December 7, 2009 at 01:20 am

Hey Matthew, awesome trip report. Comments: a) our experience transiting at BOG was same as Juan's: we got boarding passes for BOG-LIM at LAX so did not need to enter Colombia at all on the outbound. b) why didn't you get a transit stamp also when you returned to BOG? We did that and did not have to pay the ~$30 tax the next day. I don't think we qualified for the exemption (we were in the country a little over 24 hours) but it worked anyway. c) a person who flies around the world in F/C goes to sleep in a dormitory... LOL!

@Juan: Thanks for your comment. Good to know. Perhaps I could have checked in with Avianca in Mexico City and already had my boarding pass when I landed in Bogota?

@zbenye: I did get a transit stamp when I returned to BOG and I was only in the country for 16 hours. The lady at the Mexicana check-in took it and said I only had to pay ~$30 because of the stamp and that it would have been ~$60 without it.

RE: dormitory Absolutely! I had the whole room to myself for $10! I love hostels. I am spoiled rotten when it comes to traveling in premium cabins, but I'm not yet to the point where I won't set foot in only four or five star hotels! ;)

Mr. Bean December 9, 2009 at 08:04 pm

Yes - hostels are great bargains. I just need a place to sleep, way I see it.

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