It appears that our tax dollars are still working hard to confuse the industry and the public about passport requirements at U.S. points of entry.

Most folks know by now that if you are traveling by air to the U.S. from nearby points in the Western Hemisphere (including Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda), you need a passport to enter the U.S. when you return.

Eventually, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will extend that requirement to travelers at land borders and seaports, but Congress and the administration can never seem to agree for long about how and when this should happen. As a result, the effort to orchestrate an orderly phase-in produces something best described as fits and starts.

About a year ago, Congress set mid-2008 as a target date for land borders and seaports, but warned the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that several things had to happen first.

Key among them was the development of a passport card, a wallet-sized ID card for U.S. citizens that would be an inexpensive alternative to a passport -- a particularly attractive and sensible alternative for residents of border states who make frequent border crossings.

But as the mid-2008 target date approaches, the passport card is nowhere in sight, and nobody on Capitol Hill wants to run for re-election in the face of another round of constituent complaints about a backlog of passport applications or long lines at border checkpoints.

Thus Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) co-authored a rider to last year's omnibus spending bill that would postpone the target date to mid-2009.

That seems like a wise move.

In the meantime, however, we think Customs and Border Protection can do a lot more to keep the travel industry and the traveling public informed.

Maxjet

It was a good name and, in our opinion, a good idea. But like so many pioneering good ideas implemented by so many other well-named new-entrant airlines, it failed.

To its credit, Maxjet took steps to protect its passengers, both on the ground and in the air, and its demise looks like it will leave a much smaller mess in its wake than many others we can name.

As the postmortem gets under way, we will doubtless hear from analysts claiming that the idea of operating a handful of 767s across the Atlantic with only 100 business-class seats was doomed from the start because the airline could not achieve any economy of scale.

Others might assert with equal credibility, that the business plan looked a lot better when it was conceived in 2004, before the run-up in crude oil prices.

In any case, we don't believe the death of Maxjet means the death of the premium niche (or niche players in general) in the U.S.-Europe market. Although no U.S. airline has survived for long offering an all-premium service, the idea continues to attract capital from time to time, and other premium airlines, such as Eos and Silverjet, are still crossing the pond.

In short, for those seeking diversity, there is still hope, and the advent of the U.S.-European Union open-skies agreement may create still more opportunities for airlines to try things differently.  

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