2015 Citizen Services

John P. Wagner

Implemented facial recognition systems that simplify and fortify airport security, helping travelers reach their destinations faster while stopping suspected terrorists and others attempting to enter and leave the U.S. using false documents

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was at a crossroads, facing the need for heightened security while grappling with a big increase in the number of international airline travelers, long wait times for arriving passengers, a surge in missed flight connections and customs officers struggling to keep up.

John Wagner, now a deputy assistant CBP commissioner, stepped into the breach, conceiving of and implementing two groundbreaking programs that fundamentally improved a more than a century-old international arrivals process for returning Americans and a growing number of foreign travelers visiting the U.S.

“No one has been more responsible for the transformation of the international air arrival process than John Wagner,” said CBP Deputy Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “He is dynamic and innovative, and has been the force behind our efforts to enhance the passenger experience in a way that maintains our security and has facilitated the growing volume of international travelers to the U.S. each year.”

One initiative launched in 2008, known as Global Entry Trusted Traveler program, has enrolled more than two million individuals, is offered at 42 U.S. airports and 12 preclearance locations, has been used 13 million times since its inception and has cut down long wait times for arriving passengers to a matter of minutes. A second program introduced in 2013 called Automated Passport Control is now in place at 34 airports and has reduced wait times by as much as 40 percent for passengers arriving from abroad at a number of major airports.

Under Global Entry, U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and travelers from several foreign countries can pay a $100 fee and submit personal information online for background checks and a subsequent personal interview that includes fingerprinting.

Approved travelers bypass the regular immigration control lines and proceed to automated, biometrics-based, self-service kiosks that validate passports, verify fingerprints, perform database queries, accept an electronic customs declaration and issue a transaction receipt. Members can quickly clear through customs, immigration and agriculture processing without the need for an interview with a customs officer, which is a big help given the 22 percent increase in the number of international air travelers during the past five years.

The Global Entry pass is valid for five years, after which it must be renewed.

Colleagues said Wagner initiated the Global Entry concept, led the development of the online application process, the kiosk design, the policy guidance for adjudication of applications and the program’s rules and requirements.

“John was the man behind the Global Entry program. He had the vision to know we had to implement a new technological solution to move people more quickly through the international arrivals process. He led the concept and design and had the horsepower to get it through,” said Dan Tanciar, who handles travel and tourism initiatives for CBP.

In addition to streamlining the international arrivals process, the program has allowed CBP to reinvest inspection resources in other more productive areas since the kiosks now process approximately 8 to 10 percent of all arriving air travelers from abroad. The kiosk use has resulted in saving the time equivalent to an estimated 71 CBP officers.

Wagner also worked with the airport authorities, the airlines and private-sector companies to develop the kiosk-based Automated Passport Control program that began in 2013 as a pilot project. This program does not require pre-enrollment or a fee, but allows those with U.S. passports and travelers from a number of foreign countries to move out of the main customs processing line and proceed directly to a kiosk where they can scan their passports, have their photograph taken, fill out an electronic customs declaration form and answer a series of questions verifying biographic and flight information.

Once passengers successfully complete this process, they receive a receipt which they take with their passport to a CBP officer, who can focus solely on questioning individuals and paying attention to behavioral responses rather than spending time on administrative processes. Wait times have been reduced significantly even as the number of travelers has increased.

Rosemarie Andolino, the former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, said the Automated Passport Control system was “a game-changer,” resulting in a decrease in average wait times from as long as three hours to as little as 15 minutes for some passengers arriving from abroad at O’Hare International Airport.

Wagner’s colleagues said he partnered with airlines and airports to demonstrate the benefits of this program and convince them to cover the costs. He developed the business and IT requirements, and the operational policy guidance for airports and airlines to purchase, deploy and maintain the kiosks and software. The program has grown rapidly saving the equivalent of 110 CBP officers by moving the administrative portion of the inspection process to the kiosks.

Wagner started his federal career 23 years ago as a customs inspector at the New York-New Jersey seaport and later at the Port of Laredo, Texas. He is now deputy assistant commissioner in CBP’s Office of Field Operations, overseeing nearly 28,000 employees and operations at 328 ports of entry.

Wagner said his work “redesigning the international arrivals process has been extremely gratifying because it has contributed to the national security of the country, helped promote travel and tourism that benefits the economy and delivered a public service that has been well received.”