ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A short waiting list is drawing hundreds of American tourists and businesspeople to Albuquerque to pick up preapproved clearance passes aimed at helping international travelers quickly move through customs.
The "Global Entry Pass" lets low-risk travelers bypass the traditional U.S. Customs and Border Patrol inspection when arriving into the U.S. from abroad, and instead use kiosks to re-enter the country at select airports. The passes have been shown to reduce wait times by 70 percent, officials said.
And unlike airports and enrollment centers in larger cities, the Albuquerque International Sunport Airport has no backlog to get them. That makes it one of the quickest sites in the nation to obtain a pass, officials said.
Some visitors are taking advantage of the quick turnaround by also squeezing in a mini vacation to popular New Mexico hotspots like Santa Fe and Taos, according to customs agents.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents can apply for a pass by filling out an application online and paying a $100 fee.
Federal officials then perform a background check and book appointments with travelers who earn initial approval. That's where travelers can see which locations have the earliest openings. Often, it's Albuquerque, according to globalentry.gov.
With the passes, which are good for five years, travelers can use around 300 kiosks at more than 30 U.S. airports. Travelers just scan their fingerprints, and a receipt is generated for easy exit through customs and immigration.
But getting a pass often can take weeks or months, since travelers are required to schedule an in-person interview with customs agents from one of nearly 40 enrollment centers across the county. Most centers are in major hubs, and federal officials have opened satellite offices in some cities like Atlanta and Houston to help reduce waiting times for appointments.
It's a different story in New Mexico, where officials can sometimes book interview appointments within a day of an application's approval, said Tracy Thorpe, Albuquerque director for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
"In places like New York and Phoenix, it can take months to get an appointment," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "So, people look online and notice that they have more flexibility in Albuquerque and just come out here."
The Albuquerque site also has another advantage: When travelers have questions about pending passes, phone calls are answered by people rather than recorded messages since the office doesn't receive much traffic.
"Our size helps us give a personal touch," Thorpe said.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, more than 1 million Global Entry Passes have been doled out nationally since the program began. Of those, only around 3,000 have been processed at the Albuquerque office, which opened in June.
Thorpe said the Albuquerque site conducts on average around 25 interviews a day for passes but can handle up to 40. "We still have plenty of room," he said.
Meanwhile, Thorpe said larger sites are booked solid and usually conduct around 60 to 70 interviews a day.
Global Entry also provides access to the "Transportation Security Administration PreCheck" initiative, which allows passengers to speed through special security lanes without taking off shoes or belts.
Rene Banglesdorf, CEO of Georgetown, Texas-based Charlie Bravo Aviation, a company that buys and sells aircrafts, said she just received her Global Entry Pass after a two-month wait. She filled out the application online in December and booked the earliest appointment she could at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas.
Banglesdorf finally got her pass last week after a 10-minute interview with an agent.
"If I had needed to travel out of the country immediately, definitely, I would have gone to New Mexico," Banglesdorf said. "I would have made a nice quick trip out of it, too."
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .