Friday, July 27, 2007

To Hell And Back: Travelling Is So Much Fun Thanks To Our Governments "Help"

Confused about passport regulations? TSA Security measures? You’re not alone. Rules are changing almost daily, Congress can’t agree with Homeland Security officials, and State Department processing centers are clogged with a passport logjam that that's become total gridlock. And it's a rare day in Washington when a top government official accepts responsibility for a massive bureaucratic failure. But there she was, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, telling a congressional committee last week it was her fault that tens of thousands of Americans have had to delay or cancel their travel plans because the government couldn't process their passport applications fast enough. Help may be on the way to deal with the backlog of unprocessed passport requests.

At the peak of the passport fiasco in early summer, more than 2 million Americans were still waiting for passports, with half a million waiting more than three months for a document that was usually ready in six weeks. "I deeply regret that," said Harty, who heads the state department's passport office. The delays resulted from a change in passport rules enacted by Congress in 2004 as an anti-terrorism measure. Effective Jan. 23 of this year, Americans visiting Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda were required for the first time to have passports to return to the country. The Bush administration had two years to prepare for the change, but for the most part failed. In the first three months of the year, 5.5 million passport applications were filed. The State Department did not hire enough workers to keep up with the demand and fell massively behind, disrupting many personal travel plans, honeymoons and business trips and also affected child molesters going to Thailand. Harty said some applicants were not aware that the passport requirement applies only to air travelers, with the extension to land and sea travelers not going into effect until 2008 at the earliest. She also noted that many non-travelers were now applying for passports because they view the document as a solid form of identification. Anybody remember the National ID Card? What happened to that?

On June 8, the State Department said that as a stopgap measure it would accept government-issued photo ID and a passport application receipt from air travelers returning from affected countries through Sept. 30. By then, it says, it ought to be able to catch up with the application demand — estimated to now be 17.7 million by the end of the year. That little piece of legislation passed the other day would make it easier for the State Department to rehire retired personnel to pitch in.

A House bill, approved by voice vote, responds to the department's inability to cope with a deluge of passport applications. The bill would grant the State Department flexibility to rehire, on a temporary basis, retired foreign service passport adjudicators. It would waive rules that deny pension payments to retirees returning to work when they exceed strict wage and hour caps.

Got that? Good – it may change again tomorrow.

In a related, unrelated story (adding some of the government confusion here), The Transportation Security Administration has done it again. Earlier this summer it prevented a dangerous sippy cup from being carried on board a plane in Washington. This week, it stopped a 7-year-old Florida boy from boarding his flight because he's on the no-fly list. It was his third attempt to get on a plane. Take a look at young Michael Martin of Coral Springs, Fla. Cute kid, huh? Does this look like a terrorist? Well, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel says the 3-feet, 9-inch boy's name is on the nation's no-fly list, which the feds claim includes only those individuals who are a "known threat to aviation." TSA says no children are on the watchlist.

Still, Michael Martin — the child — most recently ran into problems on July 3, when his mother booked a flight on AirTran Airways to Baltimore for vacation. After a kiosk refused to spit out a boarding pass, she asked an airline agent if there was a problem. "She made a funny face and said, 'Oh, he's on a no-fly list,'" Krista Martin said. "They looked at him and immediately realized he was only 7." There is an Irish terrorist named Michael Martin who was convicted in 1995 of taking part in an Arizona smuggling ring that attempted to ship bomb detonators to the Irish Republican Army, according to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, a nonprofit organization based in Oklahoma City. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison. The TSA says the AirTran incident shouldn't have happened because airlines are responsible for "automatically" removing children from no-fly lists. Indeed, on its Web site,, the agency proclaims that placing children on such lists is a "myth."

Now, it doesn't take a lot of common sense to know that this is nuts. We know that the no-fly list is bloated and inaccurate ... but kids, for goodness sake! That should be a no-brainer. The TSA now has a new program called Traveler Redress Inquiry, or TRIP, that could help the Martins and any other kids who are unfortunate enough to be tagged as terrorists.

And the good news for the cigarette smoking travelling public this year is that you can now take a lighter on an airplane. But in what airport can you actually smoke a cigarette? You'll need a passport and not be on the no-fly list just to do that. Ahh, I love the government!