Millions of Americans spend all year looking forward to unwinding on their summer vacations. But this year, a massive backlog in passport applications is making travelers anything but relaxed.
Faced with searing congressional criticism, the U.S. State Department apologized this week, saying it underestimated how post-9/11 security rules put in place this January would impact passport demand.
Americans flying to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean now need a passport. Because of that, about six million more people than last year have applied for one and the state department is not keeping up.
"We are taking the steps necessary to restore reliable service as soon as possible," says Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Some progress has been made. The waiting period to receive a passport is now down to ten weeks. It maxed out at twelve, double the normal processing time.
Beatriz Diaz, the owner of Tropicana Travel in Rockford says many of her clients have had to cancel or reschedule trips at a high cost because they did not receive their passports in time. But she adds part of the problem is many people did not apply early enough because they didn't know about the change in rules.
"They go, do I need a passport? Some people don't even know that yet," says Diaz.
Teresa Ames of Rockford is one of those people, she says, "Canada I believe you need a passport, but Mexico you don't need one."
Ames is planning a trip to Mexico this winter, but she does not yet have a passport.
"I had no idea and if you hadn't asked me today I probably would have had to cancel my trip and lose my $1,400," says Ames.
The state department plans to require passports for Americans driving over the border as early as 2008. They expect an even bigger swell in applications then but hopefully not in delays.
Maura Harty of the State Department cites another reason for increased demand. She says many people who applied this year wanted a passport to prove their citizenship, iIn a time of concern over terrorism threats.
To relieve the delay, the State Department has hired 2,500 new staff who are working extra shifts. They hope to be caught up by the end of September. Until then, people traveling in the western hemisphere can now print a receipt from the State Department website at http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html proving they have applied for a passport, but have not yet received it. Through September, Americans can travel with that receipt and a photo I.D.