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Air travel passport policy may get hiatus As applications back up, summer waiver expected

The Bush administration is expected to put on hold a controversial new policy requiring passports for Americans who travel by air to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda, which has overwhelmed the State Department with passport applications and in some cases disrupted summer travel plans.

Under the change, which was expected to be announced as soon as today, travelers could show a receipt for a passport application along with a driver's license as identification on such flights. The suspension is expected to last until the end of September.

While State Department and Department of Homeland Security officials declined to comment on the expected change, congressional sources said that an announcement is imminent.

"We think that could be helpful," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said the proposed change shows that other changes are needed to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the anti-terrorism plan that called for the new flight rules and that also would require passports at Canadian land border crossings starting Jan 1.

"The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is a flawed plan," Slaughter said. "We were told that air travel would be the easiest mode of travel to apply [Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative] requirements to, but it turned out even that prediction was untrue."

The change in policy is not expected to affect the Jan. 1 implementation of the passport requirements at land border crossings.

In addition to the passport receipt, air travelers to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean would have to show a government-issued photo ID and could be subject to stricter security than travelers with passports.

The change is aimed at alleviating a gigantic backlog of passport applications that has pushed the processing time for those documents to 12 weeks, which is twice what it was a year ago.

The State Department, which processes passport applications, blames the long wait times on an unprecedented demand for new passports. The department processed 4.5 million passports between March and May, up by 60 percent from the same time the year before, said Steve Royster, spokesman for consular affairs.

"It's hard to say why Americans, in record numbers, are recognizing the need for a passport," Royster said.

But one major factor, he acknowledged, is the new passport requirement.

From the travelers' perspective, that requirement can lead to unexpected hassles.

For example, Douglas Mooradian of Niagara Falls waited in vain for 10 weeks for a passport that the government had promised to get him in time for him to attend his sister's wedding in the Caribbean.

With the wedding date fast approaching and still no passport, last month he spent $770 to fly to New York and hurry the passport process along.

"It's inevitable that it's going to take longer to get a passport now," said Mooradian, who, with his girlfriend, made it to the Virgin Islands in time for that wedding last month. "The issue that I have is: Are the timelines realistic?"

That's just what local members of Congress have been saying.

Reynolds said the temporary suspension of the passport requirement stops short of what is really needed: a realization at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that there is no way to implement that Jan. 1 requirement without big trouble.

"I hope some sort of light bulb goes on in those two large bureaucracies that have turf on this," Reynolds said.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, agreed. He said the current passport backlog could pale in comparison to what is coming if the federal government adheres to its plan to require passports at the Canadian land crossings.

"This is a small sampling of the problems we're about to get," he said.

But for local congressional offices, the passport problem is bad enough as it is.

Higgins' offices received about 20 requests for passport assistance in 2006 -- and about 450 so far this year.

And Rep. Randy Kuhl, R-Hammondsport, said some of his constituents have already had to postpone business or leisure trips because they could not get a passport in time.

"The amount of time it currently takes to receive a U.S. passport is unacceptable," said Kuhl, who recently wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to complain about the situation.

State Department officials maintain, however, that they are responding to the greater demand for passports. Royster said the department has recently added 259 passport processors and is looking to add more, but he said he could not predict whether passport wait times might increase or decrease as Jan. 1 approaches.

For now, though, applying for a passport appears to be an exercise in frustration.

Cheryl Schreiner of Elma found that out in April, when the passport for her trip to the Caribbean arrived at the FedEx office at Buffalo Niagara International Airport at 9 a.m. on the day of her afternoon flight out of Hamilton, Ont.

She will be returning to Jamaica in September, and this time about 50 family members will go as well for a family wedding.

"Some of them still haven't got their passports," Schreiner said.

Passport applicants acknowledged, however, that there are some efficiencies in the system.

Following the progress of his application online, Mooradian said, "I noticed my check to the federal government was cashed very quickly."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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