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The State Department says that it's catching up on a huge backlog of passport applications. Last week, the department issued a record 412,000 passports, the most ever in a seven day-period, topping a record set just the week before. A new law that went into effect in January requires U.S. citizens to have a passport when taking a plane to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.
As NPR's David Schaper reports, that's created a huge demand that's peaking, now that spring break is here.
DAVID SCHAPER: The lobby here in the Kluczynski Federal Building in downtown Chicado was pretty quiet this week. There's hardly any line to get through security. And upstairs, in the 18th floor's passport office, there are more empty chairs than filled ones in the waiting area.
Unidentified Woman: We're in that one. Yeah.
SCHAPER: That's a stark contrast to just two weeks ago, when hundreds and hundreds of travelers, some driving six or seven hours from places as far away as Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Omaha, converged upon the Chicago office in a desperate attempt to get their passports in time for spring break trips.
Ms. LINDA DICE(ph): This has been the most botched mess I have seen in my entire life.
SCHAPER: Linda Dice and her husband left their home in Midland, Michigan before 5:00 o'clock in the morning to come to the Chicago passport office, and waited more than six hours in the hot stuffy hallway with hundreds of other passport seekers. Even though they applied in mid-January, more than two months before their vacation to the Bahamas, their passports were never sent out.
Ms. DICE: They were done February 12th, and they're sitting in South Carolina at an office, mind you, that has no phone.
SCHAPER: Such horror stories were commonplace to passport offices around the country the last couple of weeks, as the number of passport applications has surged nearly 50 percent this year. Even though the State Department had been gearing up for the new law, passport centers were overwhelmed. Processing for standard applications jumped from six to eight weeks to three months or more. And the time for expedited applications, which cost an extra $59, went from two weeks to four.
Mora Hardy, the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, says the department has hired extra staff to meet soaring demand.
Ms. MORA HARDY (Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs): We have regional agencies working through the weekend; employees at all 17 passport agencies nationwide are considering to work overtime daily and throughout the weekend to process applications so that we can meet America's travel plans.
SCHAPER: Hardy says the department hired additional staff to answer the passport hotline and updated its Web site to better track applications, and the effort is beginning to pay off. She says while standard applications could still take up to 10 weeks, expedited applications are back to being processed in about two. That's not to say there still aren't some problems for travelers like Loraine Henninger(ph) of suburban Brookfield, Illinois.
Ms. LORAINE HENNINGER (Traveler): I was fantasizing about traveling in May to the St. Kitts in Antigua.
SCHAPER: But because she didn't have a specific itinerary yet, Henninger was turned away this week from Chicago's passport office.
Ms. HENNINGER: It's extremely frustrating because I also found out that I needed a different kind of a birth certificate. So I was just at the county building for an hour and a half. And now I've come here and I can't even put in my application for a passport.
SCHAFER: Assistant Secretary Hardy admits there still maybe a few bugs in the system. She suggests travelers with questions e-mail through the State Department's Web site, or try calling the hotline during off hours. Hardy's best advice: apply for passports as early as possible.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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