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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008

New U.S. travel authorization plan has airlines on edge before launch


Staff writer

A new border control system the United States will start using to screen short-term foreign travelers in January remains relatively unknown less than a month before launch, and people in the airline and tourism industries are worried the lack of awareness will wreak havoc at airports nationwide.

The new Electronic System for Travel Authorization requires travelers from Visa Waiver Countries who wish to stay in the U.S. for 90 days or less to use the Internet to apply for permission to enter the country three days before departure. Travelers with visas are not affected.

Those who come to the airport without ESTA authorization are likely to be forced to reschedule their flights or cancel, which is causing growing concern among airlines and travel agencies.

The system takes effect Jan. 12 and will replace the written application process used by those seeking visa-free stays. It will be valid for two years or until the applicant's passport expires.

Although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security initially announced plans for the ESTA system in June, public awareness still appears low, airlines and travel agencies said Wednesday.

"Airlines have been conducting PR activities through their Web sites and in-flight magazines, but it still seems little known to most people," said Toshiya Shimada of the Scheduled Airlines Association of Japan.

The application is about 20 questions long and asks applicants if they have a criminal record or a history of drug abuse, and requests other basic biographical information. It must be submitted no later than 72 hours prior to departure

Shimada said the airline group, which includes Japan Airlines Corp. and All Nippon Airways Co., will distribute leaflets Thursday at Narita airport to boost awareness of the new system because the U.S. government doesn't appear to be doing much to get the word out.

"We'd have appreciated it if the American Embassy had conducted a large-scale publicity campaign, but that doesn't seem to be happening," Shimada said, emphasizing that airlines stand to be the hardest hit by any confusion arising from ESTA.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said it has held briefings, two press conferences and several TV interviews in Japan to explain ESTA to the Japanese media and the travel agencies. It also said it has seen a noticeable bounce in advance applications and is encouraging travelers to prepare in advance.

Naoko Shimura of travel agency H.I.S. Co. agreed with Shimada and said the ESTA Web site itself threatens to pose difficulties for travelers with little computer skills.

"Since the online authorization involves personal information, we generally have our customers fill it out by themselves," she said, noting the elderly and those unaccustomed to the Internet may find the process difficult.

According to the U.S. Embassy's Web site, ESTA approval will be almost instantaneous in most cases. But in cases where applications are left pending, travelers will have to check the ESTA Web site for updates on their applications for the next 72 hours.

If an application is denied, it will prohibit the passenger from traveling under the VWP but will not affect one's visa eligibility.

In the case of last-minute applications, Narita International Airport employee Eiichiro Takasu said Internet access is available through the airport's wireless LAN network, provided that travelers have computers and a valid Internet service provider.

"JAL and ANA said they would provide their own PCs, although I'm unaware of the situation with other airlines," he said.



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