LOS ANGELES—Editor's note: Click here to read the diary entries from the first 75 days of Catharine's passport saga.
You buy your air ticket and book the hotel for that overseas vacation. Oh no -- your passport is about to expire. With processing delays lasting months, will you get it in time? It can happen to anyone, even the experts. Los Angeles Times Travel Editor Catharine Hamm is caught in Passport Processing Limbo. Here is the latest entry from her diary:
July 30: President Bush today signed into law S. 966, the Passport Backlog Reduction Act, which allows those who have retired from the foreign service to be re-hired to help out with adjudication of passports.
Will this stop the backlog? It might help, but it won't completely fix the problem.
As Colin Walle, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, said in an e-mail to me, the foreign service officers dealt with lots of visa issues but worked on passports less often. But, he added, they tend to be Renaissance men and women who are smart, educated and dedicated. Presumably, the learning curve will be shorter.
At least, that's what those who are still waiting hope.
July 27: As of Tuesday, it had been six weeks since my passport arrived at the Philadelphia processing center, so before I left work, I went to travel.state.gov to see what it had to say about the status. Lo and behold:
"We have finished processing your passport, and it has been mailed to you.
"You requested delivery by regular mail. Passport Agencies use Priority Mail. This means you should receive your passport on or about 07/29/2007."
(As an aside, if I had received my passport on July 29, it would have been a slight miracle; that's a Sunday and mail hasn't been delivered on Sundays, in most places, since about 1912. )
When I arrived home last night, there was an express mail envelope. There was my old passport, two holes punched in the cover, and my new passport. My saga is over, but the saga of the passport is not.
For othersand it seems especially people who applied in April, for some reasonthe problem continues. A colleague wrote to me last week about her passport:
"I had to renew it (bad timing), did the paperwork in April and was told I'd have it by around July 20. I'm holding off booking travel plans for November-December for fear I'll get stuck!" (Note to colleague: Call your congressman ASAP. Go to www.latimes.com/californiarepresentatives to find his/her phone.)
Which raises the question: How many travel plans have been deferred or canceled because of the extended processing times?
July 24, 2007: One of the great lessons we learn from businesses is how they deal with mistakes.
In a recent story on JetBlue's February meltdown, Chuck Salter, writing in Fast Company magazine, outlined the airline's road to redemption: It admitted a problem, acknowledged responsibility and put plans in place to make sure it never happened again.
The State Department is only two for three in this department.
Last week, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty said the passport backlog was her fault. For a time, I was cheered up. A government official who actually said "I did something wrong" is impressive. Wow.
But my spirits began to sink after re-reading Salter's "Lessons From the Tarmac." What's missing was the last critical piece of this bureaucratic mess: how it will get fixed and stay fixed.
The passport problem--an increase from 12 million issued last year to what will probably be 17 million this year--isn't going to get better, especially once the U.S. begins requiring those who drive and fly and sail across the border to have passports, not just those who fly.
Furthermore, Harty said she hoped to return by Sept. 30 to the six-week waiting period. That's what it used to be.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said, "I don't believe it."
He's not alone.
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