The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) just released a report on airport wait times provided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to the American public. For the most part, the report shows that CBP is doing a good job meeting the challenge of decreasing wait times. CBP should be proud of this accomplishment (in part because GAO seems to almost always stack criticisms on the agency that they are investigating). This is one of the rare times when GAO did not have much to say.
But the issue of wait times is much broader than just reporting how long people wait in line at airports. It is also about waiting in line at our land borders and sea ports. While CBP reports land border wait times, it does not report wait times for cruise ships.
The basis for calculating wait times at airports begins when the plane arrives (called block time) at the gate. The end point is the time when the passenger is adjudicated by a CBP officer. The difference between the two, less the approximate time that the individual walks to the Federal Inspection Services Area (FISA), is the calculated wait time. At land borders, however, the foundation for calculating wait times still needs much improvement, and CBP has found the land environment to be more challenging than the air environment. CBP wrote in 2016 the following about land border wait times:
“Because of the operating uniqueness of each border crossing, the complexity of port configurations, and institutional requirements, a single, standardized technology for collecting vehicle wait time data may not be feasible. However, the benchmarks and algorithms to calculate the actual wait times themselves will be standardized. Because of the variability of wait time technologies, expectations regarding the quality of wait time information needs to be managed through outreach to potential users regarding the capabilities and limitations of the wait time system(s) deployed.”
Having a clear understanding of wait times in various environments is what allows CBP to identify areas for improvement. In addition, making wait time data publically available is important for business and travels. Time costs people money, and knowledge of expected wait times is important in planning. With improved measurements, firms transporting goods across the border, for example, would be able to better plan logistics, which can ultimately result in savings (e.g., cost savings from reduced inventory). Similarly, people crossing into the United States will be able to plan more efficiently.
Much work is still needed to improve measuring wait times at land ports of entry, but CBP is clearly making significant strides in how it gathers and shares its data.