Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

State Department Botches Routine Passport Renewal:
Laugh Or Cry?

I have to laugh at the ironies. Let me explain:

I’ve had a U.S. passport for 38 years with no gaps or interruptions. With such a long history on record with the U.S. State Department and as a natural-born United States citizen with roots going back 400 years to Virginia’s Jamestown Colony, you’d think a passport renewal would be a piece of cake.

Time and again since our country’s birth my family has proved allegiance to the United States of America. We fielded four officers in the American Revolution who fought for freedom in General George Washington’s Continental Army. We served our country in every major war since, proof positive that the Allens are blue-blooded American patriots.

So you’d think getting a passport renewed would be no big deal.

Not only that I was employed as a seaman long ago aboard Duke University’s Research Vessel EASTWARD, a position which required me to become a Coast Guard-certified Merchant Mariner. I hold a federally-issued Ordinary Seaman’s ticket, and my fingerprints have long been on file with the F.B.I. as required when one joins the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Sounds like someone with a long history in the good graces of the federal government.

And when I was working in Munich in the mid 1970s, the United States Consulate there issued me a special SECOND passport (I still had my original, and it was still valid) to help me navigate across borders without pesky interference from German, Swiss, Belgian, and French Immigration officials. This was after I had helped a high-ranking American official get someone close to him out of a sticky situation in Iran during the era of the Shah. (I was then European Manager for a big student charter flight business.)

Jeez, it sure sounds like our government has trusted me for a very long time, and that therefore getting my passport renewed would be easy as pie.

So I sent my passport renewal form with a check for $67, my old passport, and the requisite pictures off to the Passport Renewal Center in Philadelphia in mid January.

Six weeks later, I still had no new passport. Since I have an overseas trip planned soon, I went to the official U.S. Department of State passport application status website (
https://passportstatus.state.gov/opss/OPSS_Status_i.asp) to see what I could learn.

Hmm, I thought. They ask for a last name and last four digits of one’s SSN. Wonder if they want the suffix “III” or just my surname. Looking at the passport renewal form (I kept a copy), I saw the suffix is in a separate box from surname, so I tried my last name alone.

No dice. The website claimed they had no record of me. I tried it again as “Allen III” and came up with the same “never heard of you” message.

Reluctantly I reached for the phone to dial the toll-free number, and as I anticipated, eventually (after navigating the usual tiers of “push 2 for this” and “push 3 for that”) got the dreaded message: “I’m sorry, but unusually high call volumes prevent us from serving you at this time. Please try your call again later.” CLICK!

Persevering, I got through to a waiting queue on the 16th attempt and remained on hold for 19 minutes for a real person who works for the State Department and was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I’ll call him Bob to protect his real identity. I explained my dilemma, and Bob took my entire social security number.

After some clicking on his computer, Bob calmly announced that he had found the problem: Someone had keyed in my name as William A. Allen LLL.

“LLL instead of III?” I asked. “How could that be? ’L’ is not even adjacent to ‘I’ on the keyboard!”

“These things happen all the time,” Bob replied. I thought I detected a sigh. “I am sending through a correction now.” I heard more soft clicking in the background. “Shouldn’t be a problem since they haven’t issued your passport yet.”

“But why would they even NEED to key in my name?" I demanded. “I have been in your system for almost 40 years.”

“Well, we are always going to new systems, and they have to re-key everything every time.” He answered. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but there it is.”

“Dumbest thing I ever heard when there are many ways to electronically transfer data when updating databases. Re-keying is inefficient, expensive, slow, and error-prone.” I said. “Bottom line is that you have corrected it, right? So I have two questions: First, are you SURE I will get a passport with my correct name and not “LLL”? And second, when can I expect it to arrive?”

Bob explained: “I’m 90% your name will be correct, but this correction will cause a delay, pushing you back in the backlog. I think you should call us back if you don’t have your passport by March 16th. If you can get through, of course. You know the President instituted the requirement for passports to and from Canada and Mexico effective January 23rd, and we were overwhelmed with two million new passport applications in late January as a result. So the State Department is swamped right now.”

“But this keying error is hardly my fault,” I countered. “Is there any way to expedite this?”

“Great idea, and I recommend it,” Bob said. “It’ll be an extra $60 plus $14.40 for the overnight postage. With luck you should have it within a week.”

For peace of mind I charged $74.40 over the phone to Bob. I didn’t yell and scream at him; it wasn’t his fault. Bob was very helpful and competent even if some of his colleagues were obviously not.

My passport arrived four days later—and in the correct name. Of course it was a huge relief to get it so fast after my inquiry and with my name spelled as it appears on my birth certificate.

Still, this incident was wasteful and non-value adding. Had I not called to inquire about the delay, I would have (eventually) received a passport in the wrong name—which presumably I could have used to travel worldwide under the name Will Allen LLL for the next ten years.

I am perturbed about the bungling inside the sausage factory at State:

> Why re-key data that’s been in multiple federal databases, including the State Department’s and the FBI’s, for 40 years?

> If they do re-key it, don’t they have any ways and means to validate the data?

> Why should I be penalized $74.40 plus my lost time plus aggravation due to the incompetence of a federal process which I have already paid $67 for in addition to lots of tax dollars?

> Why should solid citizens who have had passports forever and are simply renewing be swept up in the deluge of new passport applications set loose by a Presidential whim?

I’m sure my forebears from the age of the Founding Fathers would be displeased with the red tape and inefficiencies of the federal government they launched with such high hopes in the 1780s. I know I am.

I do see the irony in it all, however, and that’s where I will let it lie: No matter how well one plans, no matter the tidiness and care of one's preparations, no matter the spotless record and long heritage of good citizenship, the steam roller of inefficient bureaucracy thwarts all.

If your passport is within six months of expiration, I recommend you renew extra early just in case.

And I hope you don’t have a suffix like "Jr." or "III" or "LLL" attached to your name.

1 Comments:

Blogger butch said...

Hey Allen, I'm in the same boat you were. I sent the passport renewal on February 13. I have been calling the Passport Agency with the same "good luck" you had and just today when they answered the call after so many 1-2-3, they told me that they will contact me in three labor days to tell me something about my passport. I'm travelling Overseas on April 24.

4/19/2007 3:14 PM  

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