If you’ve ever flown into Toronto, you’ve probably seen its tourist attractions, its neighborhood sophistication, its diversity. And when you were flying home, you might have noticed one more thing: the fact that you cleared customs while you were still in Canada.
Toronto Pearson Airport is one of 15 international facilities that offer US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a program in which passengers are screened prior to their flight. In 2019, 7 million tourists, business travelers and returning Americans were still physically in Toronto when they were considered to have arrived legally in the United States. Around the world, in cities like Montreal, Abu Dhabi and Dublin, 22 million people were prevented from entering the US.
Pre-clearance benefits travelers in the long run, but it also helps America more. It allows foreign travelers to be screened ahead of time, before they enter a US airport or airport. This allows airlines to transport these visitors through US hub airports with shorter connection times, as they connect as domestic passengers. And it brings these travelers directly to more than 160 small U.S. airports that operate with limited or no CBP staff.
This has been a big boost for cities like Orlando, Miami, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, where thousands of Canadians and international travelers arrive each month with money to spend on hotels, dining, entertainment and attractions. , creates huge economic benefits – or at least. They did until the COVID-19 pandemic. When air travel was abruptly halted at the start of the pandemic, airport operations around the world were halted. The US CBP has reduced the number of officers based in Toronto.
Today, the US tourism industry is booming again, with travel reaching pre-pandemic levels. But no preparation has been made to match it. CBP’s budget allocations have not returned to their regular levels, which affects its ability to properly allocate staff full hours or overtime.
That leaves curbside operations struggling to manage post-pandemic passenger demand, much less future growth.
At Toronto Pearson, wait times reportedly regularly exceed 60 minutes, and on some days last summer, it stretched to 90 minutes. Before the pandemic, wait times were regularly 15 to 30 minutes. Long lines affect the quality of passenger experience and make it challenging for flights to depart on time. This led to Toronto Pearson capping capacity for flights to the United States.
What’s more, these staffing issues come against the backdrop of a dispute between the United States and Canada over the ban on enrollment for the bilateral NEXUS program. NEXUS is a Canada-US trusted traveler program where citizens and permanent residents of both countries can be recognized as low-risk entrants and receive expedited border clearance. NEXUS plays a key role in facilitating frequent Canadian travel to similar destinations in the United States that benefit from precedent. But, according to industry sources, about 430,000 Canadians and Americans currently remain on the waiting list for enrollment because we have chosen not to send agents back to Canada to work on approval. While both parties are now actively seeking a solution, the disruption in service highlights the need for a modern, effective trusted passenger program.
The holiday travel season is upon us, which means welcoming Canadians and other early travelers who want to visit the United States for the holidays. Despite the many economic and security benefits, we want these issues to be resolved as soon as possible. Congress must help clear these lines and backlogs and help expedite the return of these valuable travelers to our country.
First, it must be weighed against customs and border protection. CBP should be asked to ensure that Toronto Pearson and other frontline airports have sufficient temporary officers and overtime funding for the holiday travel season. This should indicate longer wait times.
Second, Congress should provide sufficient appropriations in the 2023 budget for US Customs and Border Patrol to support forward operations to provide the same level of service as before the pandemic. That shouldn’t be a big ask, since the user fees collected by CBP — about $16 USD per passenger — more than pay for the front-end operations they facilitate in Toronto.
And finally, Congress should ask CBP to work with Canadian officials to create a new NEXUS Trusted Traveler Program to help facilitate the flow of travelers between our two countries.
Preclearance and NEXUS offer clear benefits not only to Canada but also to the United States. Seeing millions of tourists and business travelers before they reach the border makes the United States safer, more welcoming, and more prosperous. It cannot be risked only because they are not properly resourced.
Laura Dawson is the CEO of US-Canada Future Frontiers Coalition.