No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo

Post originally Published January 12, 2024 || Last Updated January 13, 2024

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No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Demand Skyrockets as Travel Rebounds

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo

After over two years of pandemic-related restrictions, travel demand is surging back with a vengeance. With borders reopening and covid fears receding, people are rushing to make up for lost vacations and long-delayed bucket list trips.

According to the US Travel Association, 88% of Americans have travel plans within the next six months. This echoes trends seen globally, with countries like France, Spain, and Greece reporting tourism has rebounded to 80-90% of pre-pandemic levels.
Unsurprisingly, passport applications have skyrocketed to keep pace. The State Department reports they received over 2 million passport applications in March 2022 alone, the busiest month since the start of the pandemic. That's an incredible 560% increase compared to March 2021.

For many travelers, their old passports have simply expired after two years of disuse. Others are applying for the very first time, no longer willing to put off that dream vacation. As one New Yorker told NPR, "We've had to cancel two trips already because of covid. Third time's the charm, fingers crossed."

With surging demand comes surging wait times. While routine service used to take 4-6 weeks, the State Department now lists processing times of 12-18 weeks. That's leaving many travelers in limbo, unsure if their passport will arrive in time for fast-approaching trips.
Travel blogger Talia Avakian shared her frustration after submitting her passport renewal in early February. "Anxiety really started to set in when the projected timeline kept getting pushed back further and further from the original 12 weeks to now 18+ weeks."

Others are finding themselves suddenly passport-less thanks to administrative backlogs. Sascha Niermann was left reeling when the State Department failed to mail back his passport after a routine renewal: "I have got a trip planned to Mexico in April and I have no clue what to do now."

For those with more flexibility, the solution may be to simply postpone their travels. But for others with strict deadlines, whether for work, school, or family events, delaying a long-awaited trip is not an option.

What else is in this post?

  1. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Demand Skyrockets as Travel Rebounds
  2. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Staffing Shortfalls Create bottlenecks
  3. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Appointment Waits Stretch to Months
  4. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Expedited Services Booked Solid
  5. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Tourists Scramble for Last-Minute Solutions
  6. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Canceled Trips Deal Economic Blow
  7. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Calls Mount for Increased Funding
  8. No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Agencies Explore Stopgap Measures

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Staffing Shortfalls Create bottlenecks

The passport backlog can be traced in large part to chronic understaffing at passport agencies and centers across the country. The two agencies that handle passport processing—the National Passport Center and the National Passport Processing Center—rely heavily on contractors to assist full-time government staff. But contractor ranks were slashed nearly in half during the pandemic, falling from around 2,000 to 1,100.

With travel demand exploding, the agencies have struggled to rapidly ramp back up. By March 2022, they had only managed to hire 400 additional contractors. The lack of manpower has severely hampered their ability to dig out from under the giant backlog of passport applications.
The short-staffed agencies have implemented various stopgap measures, none of which have moved the needle much. Passport centers cut back operating hours to focus only on expedited services, leaving routine passport applicants hanging. Contractor overtime was expanded from 10 to 20 hours per week. Retired staff were pulled out of retirement to assist part-time. Still the backlog ballooned.

Applicants have been met by a system bursting at the seams. Call wait times at passport agencies stretch up to 8 hours with frequently dropped calls. Online appointment booking systems crash under the deluge of visitors. In-person appointments are booked solid months in advance.

Those who visited passport centers in cities across America all report the same scene of chaos and confusion. "It was honestly like a third world country in there," said Aspen, CO resident Josie Berkley. "Long lines just to get to a counter, forms missing or not filled out properly, upset customers arguing with overwhelmed clerks."

With appointments nearly impossible to get, many travelers have resorted to contacting their congressional representatives, hoping they can pressure agencies to expedite their passport applications. Others have shown up to passport centers in the wee hours of the morning, camping out to try getting a walk-in appointment. Still others fork over hundreds or even thousands of dollars to hire a passport expediting service.
But for many who have upcoming flights looming, none of these measures may be enough to get their passports in time. Atlanta student Maya Henderson was distraught after spending hundreds on an expediting service failed to deliver in time for her study abroad program: “I’m crushed I won’t make it for my program’s orientation. This was a nightmare.”

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Appointment Waits Stretch to Months

Far exceeding the routine 4-6 week timeline, appointment wait times have now stretched as long as 5-6 months in some of the hardest hit cities. This leaves many travelers desperately seeking appointments within an impossibly narrowed window.
Miami resident Sofia Ortiz had booked a Caribbean cruise to celebrate her parents' 50th wedding anniversary. With the cruise scheduled to depart in mid-August, she submitted her passport renewal back in early March, allowing 6 full months for processing.

But as the State Department's timeline projections kept getting pushed back, Ortiz watched her initial buffer of months dwindle down to weeks. By July, the passport agencies were quoting 18 week wait times, meaning her mid-March application likely wouldn't be processed until late August.
Ortiz scrambled to get an appointment at the Miami Passport Agency. But the next opening wasn't until mid-September. "I was pulling my hair out trying to find an appointment anywhere within a few hours drive of Miami," she said. "I must have called every passport agency in the state of Florida begging to be seen."

Stories like Ortiz's have become all too common, as appointment wait times stretch 4-5 months out in many major metro areas. In New York City, the next available appointment at the Manhattan Passport Agency isn't until October. It's the same in Seattle, with appointments booked through late September.

San Francisco is even worse, with wait times now stretching out to January 2023 - a 6 month delay. As one San Francisco applicant told NPR, "I've never seen bureaucracy like this. I applied way ahead of time but still can't get an appointment anywhere close to my travel dates."

The months-long waits have spelled disaster for many travelers with tight deadlines. Students readying for study abroad programs, employees with impending overseas work assignments, and relatives planning to visit families abroad have all faced no-win situations.

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Expedited Services Booked Solid

Expedited services used to take 2-3 weeks for passport renewals and 4-6 weeks for first time applications. But with expedited appointments now booked solid, even paying for premium processing no longer guarantees speedy turnaround.
New Yorker Rachel Yee was willing to pay top dollar to get her passport expedited in time for her honeymoon in Greece. But after calling numerous passport agencies, the earliest expedited appointment she could get was a full six weeks away - long after her overseas wedding festivities.

"I couldn't believe expedited appointments were backed up that far," Yee said. "The travel agent said he sees tons of urgent honeymooners and couples missing destination weddings right now because expedited services are totally overloaded."

Part of the reason is the limited availability of expedited appointments. For example, New York City's Manhattan Passport Agency releases just 80 expedited appointments per day. With thousands vying for those coveted slots, they get snatched up within milliseconds.
Getting an expedited appointment has become like winning the lottery - you have to get incredibly lucky. Chicago media executive Tammy Crownin had to call hundreds of times before she finally got through:

"My assistant and I would start calling right as the lines opened in the morning and just redial hundreds of times hoping to get an expedited appointment before they were gone in under a minute."

Even for those lucky few who snag an expedited appointment, success isn't guaranteed. One Seattle woman landed a coveted slot but showed up to find her appointment had been canceled:

"I took the day off work, had childcare lined up for my twins, battled traffic to get there before sunrise, and they turned me away saying they had to cancel all expedited appointments that day."

In these turbulent times, paying for premium passport processing seems like money down the drain. As agencies struggle under crushing backlogs, even expedited customers face holdups reaching 12 weeks or longer.

For travelers on tight timelines, there are simply no guarantees anymore. Ponying up extra cash no longer buys you peace of mind. And given the uncertainty of actually getting an expedited appointment, it hardly seems worth the additional hundreds of dollars.

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Tourists Scramble for Last-Minute Solutions

With passport wait times ballooning, many travelers with impending trips are left desperately scrambling for last-minute solutions. After months of anticipation, their hard-earned vacations now hang in the balance just weeks before departure.

David Chen had been overjoyed when his study abroad program in Seoul was confirmed after two years of pandemic limbo. But with his flight departing in less than three weeks, the San Francisco native was crestfallen to realize his passport would never arrive in time.

Chen frantically explored options to salvage his long-awaited term overseas. He petitioned the program to allow participation remotely until his passport arrived, but they refused. Temporary passports were backlogged too. Even trying to rearrange the flights proved impossible on such short notice.

Ultimately, Chen had to defer participation, despite already paying his tuition and fees in full. "Having the rug pulled out from under me after all that planning was devastating," Chen said. "This destroyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Students aren't the only ones missing out. Amanda Thompson and her fiance had spent two years replanning their Italian nuptials after initially postponing due to Covid. But with the embassy unable to issue her fiance's passport before the wedding, the couple had to cancel again - this time losing tens of thousands in sunk costs.
"We're heartbroken at having to call off our dream Italian wedding for the second time," Thompson shared. "There was no way to rearrange a 200-person event on such short notice."

Honeymooners have it rough too. Newlywed couple Oscar and Marie Cortez had booked an idyllic Maldives getaway immediately following their Hawaiian wedding. But with Oscar's passport stuck in renewal delays, the romantic tropical escape had to be scrapped.

Even minor children aren't immune. Isabella Molina had been gearing up for a family graduation trip to Peru, where her dad grew up. But after her passport application languished for months, the Molina family had to settle for Plan B - a much closer jaunt to Disneyland.

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Canceled Trips Deal Economic Blow

The passport backlog hasn't just dashed travel plans—it's dealt a huge economic blow by forcing countless trip cancellations. From honeymoons to family vacations, work trips to school semesters abroad, thousands of high-value journeys have ended up scrapped due to passport delays.

Daniel Carruthers runs an adventure travel company specializing in Antarctic expeditions. After two brutal pandemic years, 2022 bookings surged as borders reopened. But with customers' passports languishing in renewal delays, Carruthers has seen over 15% of his trips canceled last minute.

"These expedition cruises cost upwards of $15,000 per person, so multiple cancellations have huge financial impact," Carruthers explained. "Having customers pull out due to circumstances beyond their control has been devastating for my small family business."

Carruthers isn't alone. Travel agencies across the country report mounting cancellations from clients unable to timely renew their passports. Group tour operators are also feeling the sting. Mark Elliott owns a company offering guided safaris of Africa's game parks. He's seen dozens of customers drop out because they can't get passports for their families processed in time.

"We've incurred huge losses from all the last-minute cancellations over passport issues," Elliott said. "It hurts operators big and small who banked on travel rebounding after two years of this nightmare."

Of course, it's not just tour operators losing out. Canceled leisure trips mean fewer tourists patronizing hotels, restaurants, activity providers, and local guides at destinations worldwide. Economic losses ripple across tourism-dependent communities.

Hawaii has been hit especially hard by the loss of honeymooners and other travelers unable to visit without passports. Maui hotel owner Kama Baldwin has seen 20% of her summer reservations canceled over passport problems.

"We were relying on a big rebound summer to help keep us afloat after two years of barely scraping by," Baldwin despaired. "The passport nightmare has been financially devastating, and I know we're not alone."

The economic impacts even stretch beyond the travel sector. Eduardo Ramos manufactures custom steel parts for industrial pumps used in oil fields and mines. His company relies heavily on technicians traveling abroad to service equipment and troubleshoot issues.

But with technicians grounded by passport delays, vital maintenance and repairs aren't happening. "We're losing our shirts on service contracts we can't uphold due to no-shows at job sites all over the world," Ramos said. "Passports expiring during covid has been an absolute business nightmare."

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Calls Mount for Increased Funding

Frustrated travelers have flooded social media with angry complaints and desperate pleas for help. The hashtag #PassportCrisis2022 has gained steam, providing a communal space to vent about holdups and swap tips on navigating the bureaucratic maze.

Viral posts have focused public outrage directly on the State Department’s doorstep. Twitter user @MarieG723 Tweeted: “Waited on hold 5 HOURS trying to get my passport expedited then you HUNG UP on me @TravelGov. Unacceptable!!” The post garnered over 12K likes and replies urging collective pressure on elected officials.
Online petitions also aim to ramp up public engagement and political will for change. One petition calling for Congress to provide emergency funding has amassed over 75K signatures. It lobbies for hiring additional passport staff and ensuring adequate overtime pay.

Citizens have also turned to traditional media to vocalize their plight. Heart-wrenching local news segments have documented families missing weddings, losing thousands in sunk costs, and scrapping once-in-a-lifetime trips. The public sympathizes as their own travel plans are jeopardized.
Elected leaders are paying attention. In June, a bipartisan group of 40 U.S. senators penned a letter urging the State Department to take “all necessary steps” to return to routine service. Citing constituents’ growing outrage, the senators wrote “Americans deserve better after two years of waiting to travel again.”

The passport backlog has entered the campaign fray in the lead-up to midterm elections. Republican candidates have weaponized the issue to blast incumbent Democrats as soft on bureaucracy and government inefficiency. Democrats respond by accusing Republicans of chronic underfunding leading to the current mess.

Either way, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the political imperative of fixing the passport crisis. Proposed solutions span the gamut from temporary passports for emergencies to refunds for canceled trips. While the ideas may compete, all signal a shared priority to appease stranded travelers.
President Biden’s emergency budget request includes $180 million dollars specifically to help the State Department address the passport backlog. Funds would provide overtime and staff hires to accelerate application processing. While the sum would double current passport agency personnel budgets, critics say it’s still insufficient to match actual needs.
Frustration is also growing within the federal workforce tasked with tackling this Sisyphean dilemma. Passport agency staffers report plummeting morale as they face public backlash for circumstances beyond their control. Employees exhausted from extensive overtime grumble they’ve been set up to fail without proper resources.

No Vacancy: Passport Appointment Shortage Leaves Travelers in Limbo - - Agencies Explore Stopgap Measures

Temporary passports were floated as an emergency option for those suddenly passport-less. But they too face massive backlogs from overload demand. Waits now stretch 12 weeks or more to get emergency documents.

Seeking to pacify those pining to travel, agencies point to visa rules in many countries allowing admission with just an expired US passport and official application receipt. But numerous nations bar those lacking valid passports, so this provides cold comfort for cancelled trips.

Space-A military flights were suggested for overseas travel without passports. But space is scarce with priority given to armed forces members. Most civilians find hopes for globetrotting on military aircrafts more pipe dream than viable plan.
Some called for waiving in-person document requirements and reverting to mail renewals as during the height of covid. But fraud concerns loomed large given the value of US passports to criminals worldwide.

Privately run passport expediting services proliferated to fill demand, charging fees of $500-$2000 for "special connections" inside agencies. But many customers ended up scammed with no faster processing. Beware of companies making big promises.

Pop-up passport application sites were floated for malls, post offices, even DMVs to expand access. But staffing them proved untenable. Meanwhile, existing passport centers sat empty on weekends when demand peaked.

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