US Customs and Border Protection officials believe the agency might process more international travelers this year than it did in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. US Customs and Border Protection photo.
After two years of COVID-19 quarantines worldwide and slumping numbers of tourists arriving from overseas, international air travel is beginning to take off in America’s heartland.
The latest report from US Customs and Border Protection indicates officers at Chicago O’Hare International Airport processed 1.73 million passengers arriving from overseas between Oct. 1, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2022. That’s a 148% hike from the same period a year before.
Steven Bansbach, spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection’s Chicago Field Office, told Coffee or Die Magazine that federal officers hadn’t seen travel numbers this high in more than two years. He suspects the final tally for 2022 could “eclipse the 2019 pre-COVID numbers” of a little more than 6 million passengers arriving at O’Hare.
“A lot of people, I think, are going to possibly look at the summer as trying to get back out and do a little more traveling,” Bansbach said.
Between Oct. 1, 2021, when the current federal fiscal year began, and Feb. 28, 2022, US Customs and Border Protection officers nationwide processed 29.3 million passengers. During the same period a year before, officers processed only 11.4 million travelers.
US Customs and Border Protection officers are the gatekeepers for international travelers arriving at official ports of entry. Bansbach told Coffee or Die his agency had enough officers at O’Hare to handle the anticipated influx of arrivals this year, but he wouldn’t specify the airport’s security staffing levels.
“Obviously, travel is one of the main priorities. However, we can’t compromise. We cannot compromise national security, which is our primary mission,” he said.
That’s why Bansbach’s agency is urging Americans planning to go abroad to use programs that are designed to trim long lines, including TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and the new Spatial Biometric Comparison initiative.
It provides a touchless and free verification process instead of officers manually thumbing through travel documents.
“At that point, you’re not asking to get a fingerprint and sharing documents,” Bansbach said.
Facial recognition technology processes a passenger’s identity in less than five seconds, according to the agency.
If passengers don’t want to try those programs, Bansbach encourages them to arrive with the necessary travel documents ready for officers to check. They also should tell the truth to federal officers about what they’re bringing into the US, such as agricultural products, jewelry, and cash.
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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