Continental Airlines is to blame for the passport fiasco?

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Those who travel (for fun or for business) or who follow travel news/blogs obsessively are, no doubt, well aware of the ongoing fiasco with the issuance of passports, in which tighter rules for western hemisphere travel have resulted in a passport backlog that nobody seems to have a clue how to fix.

It’s been a less-than-stellar performance by our federal government, with plenty of blame to share between the legislative and executive branches (although State and Homeland Security certainly get the most).

Last weekend, though, one of the Chronicle‘s temporary Rick Casey replacements picked a most unlikely culprit to blame for the fiasco (so unlikely I’ve not seen it anywhere else, despite my near obsession with travel news):

In a January memo, the Department of Homeland Security’s office of Customs and Border Protection told airlines that during the initial phase of the new passport requirements, airlines wouldn’t be fined for not complying. They were encouraged to implement a “flexible phased” policy allowing wiggle room while the program got off the ground, according to Customs spokeswoman Kelly Klundt.


Technically, the government hasn’t even been enforcing the new passport requirements for Americans traveling to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. The Customs memo promised to notify the airlines in writing 30 days before the law took full effect. That hasn’t happened yet.


“That wasn’t publicly disseminated because we didn’t want to encourage travelers not to comply,” Klundt said. “We’re walking a tightrope here. We’re trying to implement something that Congress told us to implement, while making sure that Congress’ constituents aren’t stranded travelers.”


Meanwhile, some airlines, such as Fort Worth-based American, chose to quietly follow the memo, allowing flexibility. For instance, American allows U.S. citizens to travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean with a birth certificate if they haven’t gotten their passports.

Other airlines, including Houston-based Continental and Arizona-based U.S. Airways, chose to ignore the memo and require passports, even at the risk of stranding passengers caught up in an unprecedented passport-application backlog. In the Houston regional office alone, it has mounted to 90,000 applications.

The result is a national fiasco….


So why has our hometown airline decided not to help?

As consumer travel has finally recovered from the 9/11 shock and airlines (not to mention air traffic control systems) are bursting at the seams with travelers, it’s become a populist pastime to bash the airlines. And with service cutbacks, delays, and stranding of passengers growing more frequent, the airlines do deserve some of the criticism they get from their customers.

But blaming the airlines (specifically Continental Airlines) because the federal government has made a fiasco out of a basic function of government (passport issuance) is one of the silliest things we’ve seen from the local Hearst daily in a while. It’s almost as silly as the federal government using the local Hearst daily to bash the airlines for literally following their rules (or not following their rules, or not reading their minds, or not doing something to make it all better, whatever that might be). It’s even sillier than this, in my view.

How much longer before Rick Casey gets back?

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX