Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The new Soviet bureaucracy

The passport office surged to the front lines of the war on terror in January, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative began requiring U.S. citizens to carry a passport on flights to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, Americans quickly discovered the glitch: It's not easy to squeeze millions more passports out of the same old department. ...

Back in June, my family and I set out to renew our passports. Well-aware of the backlog, we applied in person at the Post Office, paid an extra $60 apiece for rush delivery, and spotted the agency two full months until our trip. ...

Agents assured me that if all else failed, I could sort everything out with a trip to the passport agency in downtown Washington. But 36 hours before our flight, an agent told me not to worry—our passports were ready and would be FedExed to our home the next morning, leaving us plenty of time to get to the airport for a Friday night departure to Australia.

When the morning arrived and the passports didn't, it finally dawned on me that I had been conned. ...

But the full extent of the con didn't hit me until I joined the teeming crowd at the passport office. ... A news ticker streamed across the wall with the message, "The average waiting time is 163 minutes." A clerk gave me a numbered ticket that said, "Upgraded Application." It said my estimated wait would be 5 hours, 41 minutes. ...

I reached the caseworker window in a mere 150 minutes, still with a faint hope of making an evening flight. But the agent at Window 8 had other plans. She angrily questioned why I needed a passport that day, when my flight wouldn't land in Australia until two days later. I tried to explain the International Date Line, but she had already reached a verdict: Our passports couldn't possibly be done in time for us to leave, so that meant she had no obligation to complete them. And since the office was closing for the weekend, she gave me a slip to come back for them—on Monday. ...

Then a minor miracle happened. If the agent at Window 8 had been an immovable object, the agent from American Airlines was an unstoppable force. I told her our story at 5 p.m. on a Friday in August, when Jason Bourne himself couldn't break into the federal government in Washington. Somehow, she tracked down our passports and had them in our hands by 7:30, then rebooked our flights to leave the next day. When I asked her how she did it, she just laughed, the way a weary Russian might once have done in shrugging off the labyrinthine challenges of surviving the Soviet Union.

The mystery deepened as I looked inside the passports. Just two hours earlier, the passport office had insisted our passports didn't exist and wouldn't anytime soon. But according to their "date of issuance," the passports had been issued two weeks before.
--Bruce Reed, Slate, on a warning to get your passport renewed a year in advance

2 comments:

Jess Austin said...

I got my passport renewed a couple of months ago, and it took less than a week. When I told the lady at the post office I wanted to pay extra to rush it, she asked, "Are you sure? You'll have to fill out another form and then the actual work will get done here on the island instead of back on the mainland."

Could there have been any question? There are actually people here in Honolulu just waiting to do this for me? Just sometimes, living in the hinterland has its advantages...

Abi said...

Nice post! You have said it very well. Keep going.