Planning to jet off to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean? If you won’t get there and back by Jan. 8, you better dig up your passport or risk getting bumped from your flight.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative goes into effect for air travel right after the holidays, requiring a passport for flights to and from nearby foreign countries that to date have accepted just a driver’s license or birth certificate.
For now, nothing changes for those crossing by car or cruise ship.
But the new air travel rules may trigger a deluge in applications for U.S. passports, causing delays and canceled travel plans, industry experts warn. If you don’t have a passport, you should apply as soon as possible, said Yvette Lopez, spokeswoman for AAA Arizona.
“We’re expecting big delays in processing passports, because everybody will wait until the last minute,” she said.
While local travelers may be worried about getting out of the country, local tourism leaders are worried about getting tourists from neighboring countries in.
They have mixed concerns about how the new rules will impact business just as the lucrative winter tourism season heats up. About 10 percent of Mesa’s winter visitors are Canadian, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“A ton of Canadians drive, and it won’t affect them,” Brinton said. “But we get a lot that fly down for short trips.”
Margie Emmermann, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, said the new rules won’t affect travel from Mexico because Mexican nationals already are required to have a passport to enter the U.S., and she doesn’t believe they will keep Canadians home in big numbers.
“Most air travelers have been using passports all along,” she said.
But that’s not so for those who drive to neighboring countries. Emmermann and other U.S. travel industry leaders successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to postpone the new regulations for crossing borders by land. The government tacked on cruise ships.
“We weren’t opposed to the (new regulations),” Emmermann said. “The biggest issue was the land borders. We just wanted to give people time (to get travel documents.) And we wanted a lower-cost alternative.”
Congress approved the creation of a PASS, which stands for People Access Security Service, card — a multi-year, cheaper alternative to a passport that will serve as an alternative to the drivers licenses used today to cross borders.
Government officials still have to decide on the technology and procedures for the PASS card, so it won’t be available in time for the new air regulations, said Brian Levin, spokesman for the Arizona field office for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Right now, the only alternative is a passport, ” he said.
Levin said the problem with using U.S. drivers’ licenses as identification is they are issued by each state. That means there are too many variations, making it nearly impossible for security officials to identify forgeries. And, he said, even valid drivers licenses don’t establish citizenship, just the right to drive.
The new legislation requires a passport or PASS card to be used for land and sea border crossings by June 2009 at the latest, Levin said. Government officials could implement the land rules sooner, however, if the structure to issue and read PASS cards is in place, Levin said.
Tempe-based US Airways, which flies 14 routes a day between the Valley and neighboring countries, won’t have to make any changes when the new rules go into effect, said airline spokeswoman Valerie Wunder. Flights from Mexico already go through the international gates and passport control. And flights from Canada are cleared through U.S. customs before they leave the ground, she said.
However, US Airways is notifying international passengers to be wary of the upcoming deadline, so they don’t have an unpleasant experience and ruined travel plans next year.