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New Tampa airport kiosks speed international visitors through customs

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Published:   |   Updated: August 19, 2014 at 07:22 AM

— More than 530,000 international travelers clear Customs at Tampa International Airport every year and the airport is working to attract even more. Adding 10 automated passport kiosks to get them on their way faster is just one more benefit the airport can tout in that quest, Airport Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano said.

Lopano, flanked by the local congressional delegation, officially unveiled the kiosks during a short news conference on Monday. Tampa International becomes the fourth airport in Florida to install the kiosks, designed to cut 30-40 percent off of the time it takes international passengers to clear immigration checkpoints. Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale also have them.

International passengers have grown 40 percent at the airport since 2010, Lopano said. This addition is one more way to preserve the airport’s legacy as one of the top in the nation for customer service, he said.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority paid $500,000 for the kiosks out of its capital budget as part of additions and renovations to Airside F, where international passengers arrive and depart.

Once international passengers are escorted from their plane to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for clearance, anyone carrying a U.S. passport or a passport from any of 38 visa-waiver nations can use the kiosks, said John Choinski, acting area port director. Among those countries are Canada, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Denmark and New Zealand.

Customer Service representative Vince Torres-Roa demonstrated one of the kiosks using his own passport. Customers first enter their preferred language, then follow the prompts to fill out a declaration form. They scan their passport, get their photograph taken and get a print-out of their declaration form before standing in line to formally clear customs.

The lines for visa-waiver passport holders are much shorter and faster than the lines for other visitors, Torres-Roa said.

“It gives us a really great jump on getting passengers through, especially if there are multiple flights coming in,” said Customs Assistant Area Port Director Dennis McMahon. “These kiosks are manpower multipliers. They don’t replace inspections, but they perform perfunctory tasks” to speed the process.

At present, Tampa International has flights coming in from Canada, England, Switzerland, Mexico, Cayman Islands, Panama and Cuba. Typically, it takes a passenger 55-60 minutes to get through immigration checkpoints, airport officials said.

The 208 passengers on a recent British Airways flight took only 32 minutes to process using a combination of the kiosks and traditional Customs officers.

“I’m particularly excited because the number of international travelers through Tampa is on the rise,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, who attended the press conference, along with Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs, David Jolly of St. Petersburg, and Dennis Ross of Lakeland.

“Every international traveler spends an average of $4,500 here,” which helps to create jobs and keep the travel and tourism industry robust, she said.

Ross called it a ‘cutting edge” addition to the airport and Bilirakis, who chairs the House caucus on tourism and travel, said he is excited to know the airport is working to bring in more international travelers from visa-waiver countries.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

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