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Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page P01


Apply Early and Often

The U.S. State Department's new rules requiring passports for travel within the Western Hemisphere won't become effective for months, and in some cases years. However, "to avoid a last-minute crunch, we're encouraging people to apply for travel documents as soon as possible," said Daniel Smith, an assistant secretary in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Currently, you need proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate) and a photo ID (such as a driver's license) to re-enter the United States from most of our closest neighbors to the north and south. Under the new rules, as of Dec. 31 you'll need a passport to return from the Caribbean, Bermuda and Panama. By Dec. 31, 2006, you'll need a passport to re-enter the United States if traveling by air or sea from Mexico or Canada. By the end of 2007, land crossings from Mexico and Canada will also require passports. The rules, phased in to prevent chaos, are intended to thwart terrorists. They apply both to U.S. citizens returning home and visitors from those countries.

The new rules are expected to increase U.S. passport applications from last year's 8.8 million to 17 million. Smith said his office plans to add more employees and open new offices to handle the increase. However, the potential for backlog is obvious.

The biggest mistake people make when applying for a passport? Showing up with a "birth certificate" from a hospital as a proof of citizenship. Those hospital certificates are just souvenirs. Get the real thing from the state in which you were born. Details: 877-487-2778,www.travel.state.gov.


Airport Quality Ratings

JetBlue was rated No. 1 for the second year in a row in the annual Airline Quality Ranking report that uses four criteria to judge airlines: how often flights are on time, and how often they bump passengers, mishandle baggage and log passenger complaints.

AirTran came in second, Southwest third and United fourth. Dead last, in 16th place: Atlantic Southeast.

Of the major legacy carriers, Northwest ranked seventh, American eighth, Continental ninth, Delta 11th and US Airways 12th.

But if you look at the data behind the rankings, you'll find the differences aren't such a big deal. For example, JetBlue flights are on time 81.8 percent of the time, while flights on US Airways are on time 79.2 percent of the time.

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