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INS and Airline Industry Relations
Report Number I-2000-020
September 2000


To understand the relationship between INS and the airline industry, we examined how INS and the airlines work together on the User Fee Advisory Committee. This committee represents the key opportunity for INS and the national airline industry to communicate and provide advice to the Commissioner of INS on national policy relating to the user fee account. We also observed that at JFK, Miami, and LAX relationships improved when frequent meetings were held between local INS officials and their airline counterparts.

The User Fee Advisory Committee Is Not Serving in an Advisory Capacity to the Commissioner

According to the Charter for the User Fee Advisory Committee (the Committee), the Committee is to:

. . . Advise the Commissioner of the INS on issues related to the performance of airport . . . immigration inspectional services. This advice should include, but not be limited to such issues as the time period during which services should be performed, the proper number and deployment of inspection officers, the level of fees, and the appropriateness of any proposed fee.

The airline industry and senior INS officials have expressed a belief that, in the last couple of years, the Committee has not been effectively serving as an advisor to the Commissioner. A senior INS official's comment that little constructive dialogue occurs at the meetings typifies concerns expressed by both INS and the airlines. While INS and the airlines must work together on facilitating entry and preventing improperly documented passengers from entering the country, a natural tension exists between INS and the airlines on the proper balance between these two, often competing, goals. Some senior officials in INS believe that the airlines either do not genuinely understand, or fully accept, INS's role as an enforcer of immigration law. They believe that the airlines do not always balance the need for facilitation with enforcement concerns that are in place to protect the public. From the airline industry's viewpoint, there is a growing concern that an anticipated increase in international traffic will outgrow INS resources. Industry officials stated that U.S. entry requirements are among the most complex in the world, especially compared to streamlined European entry processes that help to facilitate passenger processing. Industry officials would like to see the United States move toward a less complex process.

No formal reporting mechanism exists for apprising the Commissioner of the results of Committee meetings. A verbatim transcript of each meeting is prepared and maintained by INS Inspections staff, but these transcripts are hundreds of pages long. No lists of action items, summaries of recommendations, or other methods are used to share meeting results in a more useable fashion.

Lack of Information

The Committee's role as advisor to the Commissioner is further limited because the Committee meetings do not foster cooperation and understanding on issues of mutual concern. INS chairs this Committee and has information that industry members believe to be critical to formulating sound advice to the Commissioner. The airline industry has expressed frustration with INS's failure to provide all requested information, especially information that INS had promised to provide. At the November 1998 Committee meeting, an IATA representative stated that "we have not been given the tools to serve [our mandated] function" and that "it's time that the Committee be given the information to make some informed decisions on the direction the Committee will take."

Budget information provided by INS to the airline industry is not sufficient for the airline industry to advise the Commissioner on the appropriate fee amount. Before each meeting, INS Inspections gives the airline industry participants the proposed agenda, a standard package of budget information, and other reference materials. The INS budget office prepares the budget information for inclusion in the package, but the industry finds that this information does not give a clear picture of the status and usage of the user fee account funds. In past meetings, for example, INS had provided participants a report on the Immigration User Fee Account by program. The report only listed the gross amounts obligated for each of four Enforcement programs (Inspections, Investigations, Detention and Deportation, and Intelligence), five Immigration Support programs (including Training, Data and Communications, and Legal Proceedings), and for overall Management and Administration. The report did not break out the specific expenses obligated under the program totals. For example, the report did not indicate how much of the Inspections obligation was for personnel costs and how much was for automation projects. This detailed information was sought by committee members to make educated judgments on formulating advice to the Commissioner.

The industry has requested repeatedly that budget reports contain more detailed information than the simple program totals. Airline committee members have asked for such information as:

Without such information, airline industry committee members say they cannot be assured that the best use is made of the funds, and cannot adequately "advise the Commissioner" on "the level of fees, and the appropriateness of any proposed fee."

Senior INS officials indicated a willingness to provide much of the historical user fee budget information to the committee so that it can more fully assess what INS is buying with its current resources. On April 13, 2000, INS budget staff met with a representative of the airline industry to discuss the information that had been continuously requested by the airlines. On May 3, 2000, INS's Assistant Commissioner, Office of Budget, provided the industry representative a substantial amount of budget data. The industry representative expressed appreciation for the Assistant Commissioner's efforts at the May 10, 2000, User Fee Advisory Meeting. Senior INS budget officials, however, report that generating much of the data requested by the airlines is difficult. Some of the requested information is not currently collected by INS headquarters. INS reports that to make this information available to the airlines will require INS to allocate additional resources to collect this data from the field. For example, INS officials stated that they do not aggregate all port-level budget expenditures. Proposed budgets that are under development and have not been approved by the Department of Justice or the Office of Management and Budget are not routinely shared by Government agencies because these budgets are "administratively sensitive" until approved.

Flight processing statistics help to assess staffing needs at U.S. international airports. The statistics provided by INS to the airline industry, however, do not show the extent to which flights exceed the mandatory 45-minute inspection time limit, thus limiting the airline industry's capability to advise the Commissioner on the "time period during which services should be performed" and the "proper number and deployment of inspection officers." INS's summary of flight processing times provided to the airline industry committee members only shows gross flight information at major U.S. international airports. The information is lumped into three categories: the number of flights that were processed by INS in 30 minutes or less; the number processed between 30 and 45 minutes; and the number over 45 minutes. The report, however, does not show the degree to which INS inspections exceeded the mandatory limit (i.e., how far beyond 45 minutes that it took INS to inspect the passengers of a particular flight). Airline officials want the actual time of each flight that exceeds the 45-minute limit so that they can accurately assess specific staffing allocations. This information is critical for providing meaningful advice to the Commissioner because, without detailed flight statistics, committee members cannot make educated estimates of future INS staffing needs at airports.

Lack of Follow-up

INS does not ensure that information promised the airline industry is actually provided. Our interviews with INS and airline officials confirmed that INS was often unresponsive to airline industry requests made at Committee meetings. Committee members wanted to know a time frame for simplifying the I-94. After years of discussion and working groups, the issue remains unresolved. Another example relates to tactical information. After repeated requests, airline members said INS was still not routinely sharing tactical information at many ports even though INS had made a commitment to increase this information sharing.

INS is not tracking the resolution of issues raised at meetings. We identified a number of specific issues raised over and over again during the last 2 years by the airline industry for INS action, yet we found no evidence that INS took action to address many of these issues. For example, every year the airlines raise concerns about untimely hiring of inspectors that results in inadequate numbers on duty at busy airports to conduct inspections within the 45-minute limit during peak periods.

The lack of INS follow-up on issues that are important to the airlines has created a sense of mistrust between INS and the airlines.

No INS Focal Point

The CAO has limited authority in dealing with the airline industry. There is no one office or individual that serves as the focal point for representing INS to the airline industry. Further complicating matters, numerous INS program areas impact on the airline industry, including detention and deportation, budget, information technology, intelligence, general counsel, investigations, records management, and inspections. The INS officials who serve as the primary de facto contact points (i.e., Inspections) have no authority or control over the other program areas. Therefore, Inspections can coordinate responses to the airline industry, but Inspections cannot compel other program areas to provide information, or fully represent INS.

INS representatives who attend the Committee meetings are often unable to adequately address issues there. Although senior Inspections and budget officials regularly attend Committee meetings, they cannot speak for or respond on behalf of program areas not represented at the meetings. INS officials acknowledge that key players are not at all Committee meetings. Because no one official or office represents INS at the Committee meetings, issues frequently cannot be fully addressed or resolved.

The only INS office with responsibility and authority for all INS programs that impact the industry is the Deputy Commissioner's office. No representative from this office currently attends these meetings. INS headquarters officials we interviewed believed it would be useful to have such a representative at the Committee meetings.

Productive Relationships Have Been Fostered at JFK, Miami and LAX

During our visits to the three major INS air ports-of-entry, INS and local airline officials reported that their relationships were greatly improved. They reported that instituting regular cyclical meetings, usually on a monthly basis, in which both groups aired their interests and concerns, was a contributing factor over the last year to effective working relationships. For example, at one airport over the last year, two sets of meetings had been conducted between INS and airline management on a monthly basis. One set of monthly meetings was chaired by all the Federal Inspection Services and the other set of monthly meetings was chaired by the airline industry.8 After several months of conducting these monthly meetings, their view of each other drastically changed and is now very cooperative. Both INS and the airlines attributed this vast improvement to the meetings.

At another airport with seven separate terminals, regular monthly meetings had been planned by INS but were implemented at only one terminal thus far. At this terminal, INS officials and their airline terminal counterparts both said that their relationship had improved. Most attendees attributed the improvement to the regular meetings, where the attendees gained a better understanding of the work of their respective counterparts and the problems they had to face. For example, the airline employees gained a better knowledge of the requirements and constraints placed on INS officials in performing inspection functions and INS officials gained a better understanding of the business realities faced by the airlines. While INS and the airlines did not totally agree with one another on all issues, they were better able to see each other's point of view, which fostered a more cooperative attitude all around. In contrast, however, were the other six terminals at this airport, where regular meetings had not yet been instituted. At these terminals, the relationship between INS officials and their airline counterparts remained poor.

Recommendations on Communication

  1. INS, in conjunction with the members of the User Fee Committee, should develop a mechanism to report advice to the Commissioner.

  2. INS should establish a point of contact with senior airline executives who can provide adequate representation and speak with authority for all INS offices at the User Fee Advisory Committee meetings (e.g., a representative from the Deputy Commissioner's Office or an individual who can speak for the Deputy Commissioner).

  3. INS should maintain a list of outstanding issues (that includes completion dates until they are resolved) and provide the airlines a status report at each bi-annual user fee meeting.

  4. At the Committee meetings, INS should ensure adequate representation from all relevant offices that can be more responsive to questions from the airlines.

  5. INS should extend the practice of having regular meetings with local airline industry personnel, at least quarterly, to all major U.S. international airports where such meetings are not presently conducted.

  1. The Federal Inspection Services at airports include INS, the U.S Customs Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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