President Barack Obama pointed to the success of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport’s initiatives to reduce waits at U.S. customs as part of a national effort to attract more international tourists to the U.S.“If folks spend less time at the airport, they’re more likely to plan a return trip,” Obama said Thursday in a speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., adding that the U.S. should be able to replicate the success at DFW at other airports. “We want to bring in more visitors faster.”DFW installed an automated system last fall to help ease long lines in its customs hall. Last summer, travelers sometimes waited more than three hours to move through customs. The average waits have now been reduced from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. The airport has also received approval from the federal government to use its own funds to hire customs agents to increase staffing.The president signed a memorandum Thursday aimed at improving the entry process and reducing waits for international travelers based on the progress seen at DFW and Chicago O’Hare airports. The goal is to have the 15 largest airports for international arrivals streamline processes and use new technology similar to DFW’s.Under the policy initiative, the U.S. hopes to have more than 100 million international visitors annually by 2021. DFW Chief Executive Sean Donohue and Sabre Corp. Chief Executive Tom Klein met with Obama on Thursday to discuss ways to attract more international tourists.Doug Parker, chief executive of American Airlines Group, said the Fort Worth-based carrier is pleased that the government wants to reduce delays for international passengers. The carrier is launching new routes to Hong Kong and Shanghai this summer at DFW.“We have been asked to participate in the public-private initiative announced today to explore all means of expediting processing of travelers at our gateways and will enthusiastically do so,” Parker said in a statement.According to a White House report issued Thursday, 70 million international travelers visited the U.S. in 2013, up from 55 million in 2009. On average, an international visitor spent $4,500 per trip to the U.S.At DFW, international arrivals have increased 39 percent in the past four years, the most for any top 20 airport during that time. “The airport partnered with [Customs and Border Protection] not only on queuing, signage, passenger flow, Global Entry, and Automated Passport Control kiosks, but also on a reimbursable agreement for enhanced CBP services,” the report said. “The results have been tremendous.”A4A, the industry group that represents airlines, said that international tourism is the country’s most important and largest services export and that bolstering tourism should be a priority.“Airlines will work cooperatively with CBP this summer travel season to identify and mitigate any challenges that may arise on an airport-by-airport basis, and we look forward to working with the Administration on our shared goal of growing and improving U.S. air travel,” the industry group said in a statement.
Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631 Twitter: @Sky_Talk