Have Tech, Will Travel: How A Mobile App Is Making Airports More Secure

It can take up to an hour and-a-half for United States citizens re-entering the country from international travel to successfully make their way through the customs line at the airport. That’s just too long, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has found a partner to streamline the process. 

Launched in 2014, Mobile Passport has landed for use in 18 international airports in the United States, with Baltimore’s Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport joining the fleet in August. The app was created as a way to expedite the customs process after one weary traveler saw a substantial need.

The Problem:

Hans Miller was accustomed to traveling abroad and did so often. As a result, he fell victim to the seemingly endless process of customs lines when re-entering the U.S. and realized something needed to change.

“Lines at customs were a big problem, and only getting worse,” said Miller, co-founder and CEO of Airside Mobile.

The issues weren’t just noticed by customers. Organizations overseeing airport operations were well aware of the problems, but were having a difficult time addressing it. 

“We knew we were faced with a big problem,” said Matt Cornelius, Vice President of Airport Policy at Airports Council International of North America (ACINA). “We had increasing volumes coming in, and while we were able to provide some functionality in the form of kiosks, it still wasn’t enough.”

Getting everyone on board with the idea was a deep undertaking as well.

“The ACINA was very receptive to the idea, but this is a complex stakeholder environment,” Miller said. “A lot needed to be aligned for this to work smoothly.”

The Solution:

With the help of Boeing as a primary sponsor, Miller and his team began development of a mobile app that would allow international travelers the ability to fill out their customs paperwork digitally and have it prepared at the time they reached the airport checkpoint, making for a wholly more efficient process. 

And thus, Mobile Passport hit the runway and prepared for takeoff. But first, a year in pilot phase at Atlanta's Jackson International Airport took place to iron out the kinks.

“Atlanta was very good at embracing a new technology,” Cornelius said. “Once we rolled it out there completely, we moved on to Miami, and it just went gangbusters.”

The app, which was completely vetted and approved by the Department Of Homeland Security, has been deployed for use in 18 airports across the U.S. since the middle of 2015. The DHS has its sights set on Houston for the next deployment, with a goal of reaching 20 airports by the end of the year.

How it Works:

Eligible travelers submit their passport information and customs declaration form to the Customs Border Patrol via smartphone or tablet before arrival. This allows travelers to bypass the regular line, and the app effectively replaces the traditional blue-and-white paper declaration form required of all travelers entering the U.S. by air. 

Users then submit their information upon landing in the U.S. and receive a receipt from Customs Border Patrol and have it scanned by an officer, eliminating the wait line. 

“I am pleased to see the latest technological advancements become available to those arriving in Baltimore on international flights,” said Dianna Bowman, CBP Area Port Director for Baltimore in a statement. “Being able to increase efficiencies through technology while enhancing our security posture is a win-win for all involved.”