Nicole Lackey sat by her pool in Mandeville Tuesday, watching her two daughters swim as the on-hold music ran deep into its third hour. She was on the phone, yet again, trying to get information about a lagging U.S. passport application, despite having given up hope that the family’s upcoming trip to Mexico would ever happen.
A call from an unknown number came in on the other line, and Lackey clicked over. It was a reporter hoping to discuss the delays many are experiencing getting their passports. Did she have time to talk?
“Yeah,” she laughed. “They’re not gonna pick up.”
Lackey is one of many travelers who have had their summer vacation plans thrown into turmoil, forced to endure fruitless phone calls and stressful weeks of wondering if they’ll ever see the inside of the flights and resorts they booked months ago.
The U.S. State Department stopped issuing most passports a month after coronavirus pandemic ground travel to a halt in March 2020. The government resumed processing applications that June, and by the fall said it had worked its way through the worst of its backlog.
But reports of delays have resurfaced since the spring and a surge of freshly vaccinated travelers — particularly those seeking passports for the first time — are having some agonizingly close calls.
“It’s extremely stressful,” said Keith Martin, who spent dozens of hours on the phone as a trip to Mexico with his wife drew nearer. “We were all excited, ready to go, and they put you through this ordeal.”
The State Department says it now may take up to four weeks to even begin processing applications, with its routine service then taking up to 12 weeks and the more expensive, expedited process taking up to six weeks. Its call center “is experiencing extremely high call volumes with longer-than-usual wait times.”
The AARP warned its members this week not to wait to apply, noting that the processing time could be as long as three months. As one analyst told the association, “Unfortunately, there is no workaround. All queues are long.”
The Martins applied for their passports — his was a renewal, hers a new passport — in March for the upcoming trip to Cozumel. Keith got his, but Rhonda’s appeared to have been complicated after she was told to also submit her maiden name and her last name from a previous marriage. Weeks later, the Gretna couple was asked to submit their marriage license, which appeared to have reset the clock on the application. On June 2, their second six-week window ended and still she had no passport.
With their trip coming up in just a couple of weeks, the two hit the phones, calling the listed number more than a dozen times, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes after midnight.
“The shortest amount of time we waited was three hours, just to speak to somebody,” Martin said, joking that he can sing the hold music in his sleep. At one point Martin discovered the person he waited hours for worked for an answering service, not the agency, and knew about as much as he did. Appointments at the passport office in Canal Place, which does not allow walk-ins, have been unavailable, he said.
All the while, a trip that had cost them about $2,500 hung in the balance.
“We’re not rich,” Martin said. “We saved for this.”
Fortunately, the Martin’s ordeal ended Monday, when Rhonda’s passport finally arrived. But others cut it even closer or had no luck at all.
Attorney Pat Fanning, who has a house in Cozumel, said his son is part of a large group visiting him there this week and received his passport Friday, less than 24 hours before he was due to fly out. Even though they ordered it on an expedited basis with overnight shipping, it still took seven weeks.
Fanning noted the boom in travel has been obvious. He made two trips to Cozumel earlier in the pandemic and counted 21 and 23 of the seats aboard the 150-seat plane occupied.
“We came down last week, there was 148 people,” he said. “They went from completely empty to completely full.
“People haven’t taken a vacation for two years with their kids, so there’s this big crush on for people wanting to travel.”
Lackey had similar designs for her trip to Mexico with her two daughters, only one of whom has gotten her passport. The three of them applied for their first passports in March 2020, just before the shutdown, sending in both the girls’ original birth certificates. She got her passport nine months later and her 9-year-old daughter got hers a month ago. But her 15-year-old is still waiting.
Lackey said she still calls every week but has basically given up hope on the trip, which is supposed to start Monday.
“Honestly,” she said, “I’m not stupid, I’m not going to get it.”
After having to cancel their July 2020 trip because they didn’t have passports, Lackey said she held off on even buying plane tickets this time around. But she’s not sure whether she’ll be on the hook for the shared accommodations.
Like Martin, Lackey said the uncertainty and inability to get anyone to answer the phone are the biggest frustrations. It’s why she didn’t think twice about switching over for a 20-minute phone interview despite having invested almost three hours into a call. A few hours later, she texted a screenshot from her phone showing the call had now run 5 hours and 24 minutes.
“Still waiting,” she wrote.
Martin said that after their ordeal, he and his wife need their vacation more than ever.
“We are very much looking forward to this trip now,” he said. “I don’t care if it rains there every day, I’m gonna be happy.”