25 Investigates: Passport backlog, mailing delays force many to cancel summer travel plans

The flights and hotel were booked in January, and excitement was mounting for the Smigliani family from Malden. That long-awaited family trip to Aruba was finally going to happen. But just a couple of months later, their excitement turned into stress when they realized their passports had expired.

“We haven’t taken a trip since 2010. For us, trips don’t happen like this that often,” said Alex Smigliani, who immediately sought to renew his wife’s and kids’ passports.

Alex and his wife Erin got an early April appointment at their local post office, where, they said, an employee reviewed their documents and passport renewal applications.

“We went there anticipating paying extra money to make sure we got it [in time] and were told that it wasn’t necessary to pay that fee,” Erin said.

In fact, she recalled, the employee said they were within the “10-to-12 weeks” window and should receive their passports before their July 11 trip. 25 Investigates reviewed a copy of the Smiglianis’ applications and saw “10-12 weeks” on the upper right-hand corner, which, according to Erin, was handwritten by the postal employee.

More than three months after submitting their applications and 10 days after their scheduled departure date, Erin and Alex Smigliani are still in Malden and still waiting for their passports to arrive. Their son and daughter did get their passports in time, and their son was able to make the trip to Aruba with family friends.

“I had to often step back and say, ‘This isn’t something tragic.’ But it was literally the back and forth of ‘We’re going; we’re not going.’ It was mentally wearing us down,” Erin said.

The Smiglianis said they called the national passport information center on multiple occasions for updates on their applications and also checked for a status online. They said they spent more than six hours collectively on hold waiting to get a customer service agent on the phone.

Each time they got a busy signal or were disconnected, and their online status never changed from “Not Available,” they said.

After weeks of trying by phone and online, Erin was finally able to speak to an agent in June who told her their applications were being processed. At that point, the Smiglianis said they still had hope that their trip was still on. They held out hope until the night before their scheduled flight out of Boston’s Logan Airport.

The Malden family ended up canceling their trip and, in the process, lost $1,000 in flight and tour cancellation fees. They are not alone. Across Massachusetts and the country, would-be travelers are facing passport processing delays.

>>>MORE FROM 25 INVESTIGATES

Outside Boston’s Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Federal Building, 25 Investigates spoke to frustrated residents seeking to get new or renewed passports for imminent travel.

“I cannot get a hold of anybody [at the call center] to find the status,” said Jennifer Lasher of Hopkinton, who was trying to get an in-person appointment at the passport agency. “I got up at six in the morning. I drove in to be here when they opened, and I was told that they won’t even talk to me.”

In-person appointments at U.S. passport agencies are typically limited and reserved for emergency travel within 72 hours. But getting one of those is nearly impossible these days, as people are willing to drive or fly to other states where a handful of appointments are still available.

We found numerous Facebook sites where people are sharing advice and even selling passport appointments. The State Department warns against paying a fee as appointments are free and it could be a scam.

25 Investigates wanted to find out how things got so bad. We contacted the State Department, the U.S. Postal Service and a Congress member and found a number of issues at play.

The problem began when the secure facilities where passports are processed were closed for several months last year due to the pandemic. And even when they reopened, many offices were not fully staffed. The employees who have returned are contending with a massive backlog.

The State Department said there are currently 2 million applications it must process, and it is working to bring back more staff and increase hiring to meet the demand. The agency also said part of the problem involves “mailing delays.”

We contacted the U.S. Postal Service seeking an explanation. It sent us a press release that, in part, reads: “The Post Service continues its efforts to improve service performance and reliability with the goal of meeting or exceeding 95% of on-time delivery.”

Meanwhile, phones at the offices of U.S. representatives and senators have been ringing off the hook.

“The amount of calls to our office regarding passports has been so intense,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Worcester). “People are calling that they have a sick relative in another country, that they’re going to a funeral or a wedding.”

Rep. McGovern told 25 Investigates he’s even had to reassign staff to help with all the passport calls.

“People shouldn’t have to call their member of Congress to be able to get answers and be able to get their passport delivered to them,” he said.

McGovern is among a group of more than 50 members of Congress who are pushing the State Department to clear the passport backlog. They wrote a letter to the State Department demanding a timeline for reducing the “outrageous backlog.”

25 Investigates obtained a copy of the letter which, in part, reads: “When the pandemic forced a nationwide shut down in mid-March of last year, a large backlog of passport applications formed as Bureau of Consular Affairs staff transitioned to remote work. Additionally, as a result of travel restrictions and economic hardship, many postponed the renewal of their passport and the associated cost until a time when they would be able to use it. Given this foreseeable trend, it is unclear why more than a year later there was not more forethought put into the inevitable wave of passport applications as travel restrictions eased and the world opened back up.”

If you are a new applicant or your current passport is set to expire with a year, keep these things in mind:

  • Adult passports expire every 10 years. Children expire every five years.
  • Start the process as early as possible; allow at least six months.
  • Pay the expediting fee. An extra $60 will reduce your waiting time by at least six weeks.
  • Send you application via trackable mail so that you can keep tabs on its progress.
  • If you have to travel for a life-or-death emergency, see it your local senator or member of Congress will intervene.

As for the Smiglianis, the Malden family who had to cancel their trip to Aruba and in the process lost money and a chance to make new memories with friends and family, they just want their faith in government restored.

“After what happened for the past 18 months during COVID, seems that they would find a way to staff this properly to take care of the people that wanted to travel. And unfortunately, they didn’t,” Alex Smigliani said.