Flawed Rollout of Biometric IDs Leads to Long Lines at Ben-Gurion Airport

Confused travelers and reduced staff cause backlogs at peak season

Long lines in Ben Gurion Airport
Nir Keidar

The government’s rollout of biometric identity cards and passports over the past month was mismanaged and both Israelis and tourists standing in long lines at Ben-Gurion International Airport are paying the price.

Travelers, mainly those on arriving flights, have been facing delays of more than an hour this week just to get through the chaos of passport control before encountering other lines at baggage claim. As part of the rollout of biometric passports, the number of counters manned by clerks has been reduced and replaced by automated devices.

The devices can read both biometric and ordinary passports, but most travelers either don’t know that or didn’t know how to use the automated device – and there were few staff to help them,

At Ben-Gurion on Tuesday, confused travelers were asking, “If I have a regular passport and it’s still in effect, it doesn’t count?” and “Do I need a biometric passport to get through?”

“On Sunday I landed at the airport and there was only one station for Israeli passports and a horribly long line formed. For tourists, too, there was a big line, although it was longer for Israelis,” said one woman returning from a trip abroad, who asked not to be identified.

“Eventually they told us to move to the biometric station. People did that and a long line formed there, too. People were confused and needed help, but there was no agent,” she said.

It took her two hours to get out of the airport terminal only to find crowds at the baggage claim. The electronic boards indicating which conveyor belt is for which flight weren’t working and long lines gathered at information.

The Biometric Database Law was approved by the Knesset last February and went into force June 1, with a 6 million shekel ($1.7 million) marketing campaign by the Interior Ministry. Ads appearing on television, billboards, the internet and via SMSs touted the state-of-the-art technology and the advantages it would bring.

The campaign also made clear that “if you have an ID still in effect, there’s no reason to replace it,” but the message didn’t get through to a lot of Israelis.

As a result, long lines started forming at Interior Ministry offices in the first week of June overwhelming the staff. It takes about 15 minutes to issue a biometric ID or passport, three or four times what it takes for an ordinary document, said Amnon Shmuel, acting director of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration and Population Authority. Still, in just one month, the authority issued 107,000 biometric passports.

The issue of lines at Interior Ministry offices attracted the attention of Knesset members, who visited its Bnei Brak offices this week to learn about the problem and criticize officials.

Yulia Malinovsky, a Yisrael Beiteinu MK who was on the committee that debated the Biometric Law, said officials had erred in insisting the law go into effect in June, just as the tourism season was starting. They should have waited until October after the High Holidays season was over.

The long lines began forming at Ben-Gurion this week as the summer travel season began – and were exacerbated by flight rescheduling due to security reasons, the Israel Airports Authority said.

In the last few days, flights carrying between 80,000 and 85,000 people a day have landed and the traffic is only expected to grow as the season continues. The IAA said it expected 2.1 million people to pass through Ben-Gurion, Israel’s main international airport in July, and 4.3 million people by the time the season draws to a close September 1.

Although automated passport stations have been in place for the past year, the summer sees far more first-time travelers than other times of the year so there are not only more travelers but more who are confused.

The IAA estimates for the summer travel seasons have been known for months, but the population and immigration authority didn’t take on extra personnel to cope with the anticipated increase in demand. The authority said that it had expected more travelers to be able to cope with the automated devices on their own and that with limited manpower it was shifting staff from city offices to the airport and back according to need.

The authority insists that lines are usual for this time of year. “On days when 80,000 travelers pass through Ben-Gurion on an average day, there are going to be long lines even if we have enough passport control stations open,” a spokesman said.

The IAA says that automated passport control is four times faster than those manned by people and may be a more pleasant experience for travelers than being delayed by a clerk who has been on duty for several hours.