The State Department expects that half of all Americans will have passports or an equivalent in four years, a huge boost caused by post-9/11 security rules that swamped government offices this summer and infuriated would-be travelers, The Associated Press reports. Prior to the new security laws passed by Congress, about one in five U.S. citizens had passports. This year, the figure is already approaching one in four, and should be one in two in four years, said Ann Barrett, the director of passport services.
The agency has been harshly criticized for massive delays in processing passports as a result of the surge in applications. The fallout from the backlog continued this week, when officials estimated it would cost nearly $1 billion over the next three years to handle the demand, and said they would no longer guarantee a three-day in-house processing time for pricier, expedited passport service. To handle such expedited requests, the State Department is giving itself more time: 10 days of internal processing, as opposed to the previous standard of three days. Under the old system, if an expedited passport spent more than three days in internal processing, the applicant would be eligible for a refund of the extra $60 fee. There is no refund for a regular passport application that was delayed.
The longer wait time for the pricier, faster service is just one of many changes being made to adjust to the higher level of demand. The agency is bulking up to tackle the mountain of paperwork, planning to hire 800 new workers, roughly doubling the passport staff. The government is now producing half a million passports a week. It made 12 million passports last year; this year, it will make 18 million, and over the next four years it expects to make 100 million.
After new travel rules went into affect this year, regular passport applications that typically took six weeks to deliver to the applicant were delayed by as much as 12 weeks or more. Currently, the wait is estimated at 10 to 12 weeks; it is three weeks for the more costly, expedited passports. The State Department predicts that in September the wait time for regular passport applications will be cut to about eight weeks.