The COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts to the travel industry are well documented. In the air travel sector, at its peak in April, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) saw a 95 percent drop in flights and passenger traffic compared to a year ago. While airlines have been bringing back service in recent weeks and plan to ramp up activity even more as the summer season kicks up in July, there are still some travel-related matters that may be feeling COVID effects for a while.
- Expect delays on your passport application
- TSA Pre-Check going strong – make an appointment
- PHL hosting Pre-Check Enrollment from July 20-24
Passport Application Updates: Department of State
As of the reporting period for June 18-24, the Department of State reported a backlog of 1.6 million passport applications awaiting processing. This is due in large part to the government in mid-March significantly reducing passport operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the workforce and customers, the agency noted on its website. Expedited passport processing was temporarily suspended and service restricted to cases involving life-or-death emergencies.
There are, however, some signs of progress on this front. The 1.6 million passports still awaiting processing is down from 1.7 million the week June 11-17 (the Department updates the weekly statistics on Thursdays). The 187,000 passports issued from June 18-24 is up dramatically from the 38,000 issued two weeks earlier.
The uptick in passports issued coincides with the reopening of some 15 passport agencies and centers on June 11. These agencies and centers, including the one in Center City Philadelphia, have entered phase one of a reopening plan.
According to a news release issued by the Department of State: “During Phase 1, limited staff are returning to work at these agencies and centers, allowing us to resume limited processing of applications we have already received. Applications will be processed on a first in, first out basis. We will continue to prioritize services for customers with life-or-death emergencies. Customers who seek to apply at one of our agencies or centers must have an appointment due to a life-or-death emergency requiring international travel within 72 hours. Customers with appointments must wear cloth face coverings in all common areas, including our lobbies, and observe strict social distancing.
The Department added: “Customers may still apply at an acceptance facility or renew by mail, but should expect significant delays in receiving their passports and important documents. Contact your local acceptance facility to confirm if it is open or closed. During Phase 1, we will continue to recommend customers wait to submit new or renewal applications as delays will continue.”
According to statistics, which the Department updates weekly and provides an FAQ, the number of passport applications received is also on the upswing. From June 18-24, 134,000 new applications were received, up from 92,000 from June 4-10.
At the same time, the Department cautions that “Due to the unprecedented impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, at this time we are not able to provide a specific update on when you will receive your passport and supporting documents. We will offer processing times when we reach phase three of our reopening plan.”
The Department of State currently has in place a ‘Level 4: Global Health Advisory,” which advises that U.S. citizens avoid all international travel because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone considering international travel at this time should read the advisory and familiarize themselves with the risks.
International flights out of PHL at this time are limited to Canada (Montreal and Toronto) and Cancun, Mexico. Transatlantic service is not expected to resume this summer, and it is uncertain when flights to more Canadian destinations will be added.
TSA Pre-Check Updates
While the Department of State wades through a backlog of passport applications, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports there is “relatively little impact” to TSA Pre-Check resulting from the pandemic in terms of individuals enrolling, renewing or using the service, according to a TSA spokesperson.
TSA Pre-Check allows customers expedited security screening where they are not required to remove shoes, belts, laptops, liquids or light jackets (for more information, visit tsa.gov/precheck)
“TSA continues the processing of submitted enrollment applications,” the spokesperson noted. “The pandemic has not impacted that processing and there are no delays in receiving a known traveler number if an individual is approved. The approval process takes about two to three weeks, although many applicants receive their approval in a few days and may check their application status online.”
If someone is planning to visit an enrollment center, they should use the Find an Enrollment Center feature to determine if the center is open and its hours of operation (there are several in the Philadelphia area; a pop-up enrollment center is scheduled at PHL July 20-24). TSA strongly recommends that individuals make an appointment, and not “walk-in” to an enrollment center. This will ensure that they receive a notification if their appointment is canceled, and will allow the center to manage/limit the number of people arriving at one time to help ensure proper social distancing, the spokesperson said.
According to TSA, enrollment providers are trained to sanitize their hands between customer interactions, and to disinfect surfaces that customers come in contact with regularly. In response to COVID-19, the enrollment provider has increased cleaning protocols related to high-touch surfaces like door handles, keyboards, counters, chairs, etc.