Getting through U.S. Customs checkpoints can be irritating at peak travel times, but some passengers arriving at Philadelphia International Airport got an extra dose of angst this week.
New automated passport kiosks, designed to expedite the entry process, had a technology glitch. They didn't work for a while Tuesday afternoon and had to be rebooted at a busy time, when many US Airways and American Airlines flights were arriving from Europe.
Travelers who had just spent from seven to nine hours in the air became frustrated, and anger boiled up because many had connecting flights.
"We just flew in after a year in Madrid - a couple hundred people on our flight at least," said Miranda Spivack, traveling home to Washington. "They have all these signs heralding this automated system. We thought, 'Oh, great. This will be five minutes and we'll breeze right through.' "
Instead, she said, she and her husband waited about 40 minutes to get to a kiosk, "which kept crashing over and over. None of them worked. My husband was finally able to check himself through, and then I was next, and it didn't work for me."
Passengers became furious, Spivack said.
On Wednesday, Philadelphia airport officials said they were still testing the 24 kiosks to iron out kinks and determine how the technology can reduce waits and improve screening times.
"It was a system glitch," airport spokeswoman Mary Flannery said. The network problem required a reboot, the first since the self-service touch screens were installed Sept. 18.
While standing in line Tuesday, Spivack sent a message to a friend: "Hi at Philly airport trying to get thru passport control. Complete breakdown of three week old automated system. Lots of angry people w connecting flights. Seems like a techno disaster. Someone in line is saying needs medical attn."
Here's how the devices work: Passengers scan their passports and Customs declarations and biographical information electronically. Customs officials in Washington say the kiosks have reduced waiting times by 20 percent to 40 percent at the 24 U.S. and Canadian airports now using the technology.
Los Angeles International Airport recently installed 40 kiosks and said U.S. citizens returning from abroad have seen an average 39 percent reduction in wait times, while foreign-passport travelers are experiencing 18 percent shorter waits.
At Chicago O'Hare Airport, which installed the first self-service kiosks in July 2013 and currently has 32, the technology gets travelers out of lines and on to their destinations, said spokeswoman Karen Pride. They also allow Customs and Border Protection officers to focus on other enforcement and security duties.
Three-hour lines at Customs checkpoints at Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, and New York's John F. Kennedy airport were routine a few years ago. The waits at Philadelphia airport can be an hour, and occasionally longer.
The kiosks here were installed by the city's Division of Aviation and are owned by the airport and the airlines.
David Young, another passenger on the flight from Madrid on Tuesday, said U.S. citizens were funneled into lines for the kiosks and were not offered the option of waiting in a regular line.
"I'd say 100 or so people went through, then the line just stopped for probably 20 or 30 minutes," Young said. "People kept hitting the start button on the touch screen. Everybody got an error message. They were basically all frozen.
"People waiting in line started getting nasty. The Philadelphia airport people were saying, 'Don't yell at me.' Passengers were demanding to be taken to another line, saying they were going to miss their flight."
At one point, passengers were pulled out of line for the automated machines and taken to manual lines, where non-U.S. citizens and green card holders had been sent before, Young said. "That seemed to resolve the anger that was building."
"The unusual thing wasn't the wait, but that people got so frustrated and visibly agitated at these kiosks," Young said. "We kept talking to the Philadelphia airport employees who were manning the area, and they said variations of, 'It's not my responsibility. It's not my job. There's nothing I can do. I'm not authorized to make an announcement about what's going on.' "
The kiosks' technology reads the passenger's passport, photographs the traveler, and prints out a receipt that must be presented, along with the passport, to a Customs officer when leaving. The agent may ask a few questions.
"The woman in front of us did it five times before it would work," Spivack said. "You get a little printed receipt, which replaces the card you filled out on the airplane, which they gave us anyway," she said. "After you do this, you go see a border control agent anyway, who looks at your passport. So what did they accomplish here?"