Export, Innovate, Invest - The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service

Taking the hassle out of crossing borders

Global business travellers know the delays that can come with life up in the air. Add a border crossing and the difficulties are often exponential, with long lines at security counters and in customs halls causing lengthy waits and growing frustrations, even when simple transits are involved.

Photo: Larry Goldstein

New technologies and processes promise to solve such problems and more, with self-serve devices developed in Canada and systems being tested at our airports already beginning to reduce the hassle of international travel, industry experts report.

Automated machines allow passengers to input their own customs information and then be seen by officers in a matter of seconds. And new kiosks and screening protocols for members of trusted-traveller programs such as NEXUS could cut down on waits and delays.

“It’s a very exciting time for air travel,” says Chris Phelan, senior director of aviation security and industry affairs for the Canadian Airports Council, an association representing Canada’s airports. “If you can get through customs using a kiosk rather than having to wait 20 or 30 minutes, that matters.”

The machines were first developed and used in collaboration with Canadian and U.S. border control agencies at Vancouver International Airport. One of Canada’s busiest hubs, the airport handles some 15 million passengers a year, almost half of them international travellers.

Tony Gugliotta, senior vice-president of marketing and business development for the Vancouver Airport Authority, says that in 2009, with line-ups of as long as two hours in the customs hall, the airport was facing the prospect of expanding the facility in order to faster process passengers arriving to Canada. Instead, it began working with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to develop self-serve technologies that would facilitate the more-efficient processing of passengers, while maintaining a secure border.

The result was Automated Border Clearance (ABC) machines that are now positioned in kiosks in the airport’s customs hall, as well as at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving at the airports can use the ABC machines, which scan their customs declaration forms and passports and then issue them a receipt, to be further verified by a customs officer.

In conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP), the Vancouver Airport Authority has also developed Automated Passport Control (APC) machines for Canadian and American citizens flying into the U.S. The APC machines are positioned in Vancouver and Montreal (for pre-clearance of U.S.-bound passengers), as well as at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

With APC, passengers answer questions directly on the machines, which scan their passports and take a photo of them, issuing a slip of paper with their answers and photo, to be presented to the border agent.

The advanced border clearance devices are designed to improve and expedite border processes and increase efficiency, although they do not remove the human element, Gugliotta says. It’s important for customs officers to have “face-time” with passengers, he explains, inspecting their travel documents and asking follow-up questions to the answers captured by the machines.

By limiting the time this takes, the kiosks have sped up border processing substantially, he says. Some 4,100 passengers use APC at the Vancouver airport each day. A recent University of British Columbia study showed that for every one percent of travellers who use the devices, there is a two percent reduction in overall wait times, meaning less congestion and faster processing for all passengers.

As part of the APC program, 1.3 million passengers have so far been processed at APC kiosks in the four participating airports. In Vancouver, four times more passengers are processed by USCBP officers using APC and 33 percent less time is spent in the queue for all passengers, Gugliotta reports. “It’s a huge improvement in terms of throughput.”

He notes that the machines are “very intuitive.” Vancouver Airport Authority will work with U.S. and Canadian officials to expand both the APC and ABC programs to other airports, as required.

The cost of the devices is largely borne by the airport authorities, which are interested in improving service and enhancing the “customer experience,” he points out. “If you have an experience in the customs hall that’s negative, then you’re not going to come back.”

Problems that frequent travellers encounter at airports, such as long customs line-ups, “tip their travel decisions,” Phelan says. “For airports, it’s a competitive advantage.”

The cost of the technology, he says, “is a fraction of what a new building would cost.” He doesn’t see border clearance ever being completely automated, although further streamlining processes for some passengers, such as NEXUS card-holders, “is a huge advantage.”

Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) trusted-traveller security lines for NEXUS members have been expanded to select mid-sized airports in Canada, such as Moncton and Regina. CATSA is also piloting an eGate in Vancouver that electronically verifies NEXUS membership cards and boarding passes.

Phelan says that a new program is being piloted at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport that applies the U.S. Transportation Security Administration pre-check standard to NEXUS members in a dedicated security line. These passengers, for example, are allowed to keep their laptops and liquids in their bags and wear their shoes and light jackets during their security screening.

To see this program available at all airports across the country, NEXUS will need to sign up more members, he says. It has been suggested that trusted-traveller status could be extended to groups such as police officers and judges, in order to have a critical mass of passengers to justify the dedicated lines.

Vijay Gill, director of policy research for The Conference Board of Canada and co-author of a recent board report titled Growing Canada’s Economy: A New National Air Transportation Policy, notes that passengers ultimately pay for such technologies and systems at airports, through ticket prices and fees. But they also benefit from greater certainty in terms of the time it will take them to get through security and customs, while Canada gains as a global gateway for air travel.

“It’s a no-brainer, it’s easily worth it,” he says. “We know empirically that if you reduce the hassle and the travel time of trips, you’re going to have more trips overall.”

In the future, Gill expects there will be more technology aimed at reducing the “hassle factor” for travellers. He notes that behind-the-scenes, airports are increasingly trying to track and improve the movement of passengers through their facilities. This includes using sensors to anonymously monitor the speed and efficiency of passengers who are carrying their own Bluetooth devices.

Phelan says that in the future, new mobile applications on smart phones could take the place of customs forms. Passengers would tap their own travel and customs information into the apps and transmit the data while still on the runway, then check more quickly through customs when they come inside the terminal.

“New technology is vital to more efficient facilitation of passengers,” he says, adding that handling such functions electronically would cut down costs and paper-handling in the process. “As a traveller, you could just do it on your phone and submit it when you land. That’s a tremendous convenience.”

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