"Welcome to the U.S.A." it begins. Quickly followed by "get in line." Most airports in the U.S. have far to go in making themselves welcoming arrival points for international visitors.
One can have many experiences arriving into a new city after a 15-hour flight.
In some parts of the world, you can quickly and efficiently go through customs as a foreigner, grab your bag if you’ve checked one, and be on your way in clean, efficient public transportation. Good job Zurich and Hong Kong.
But, there’s also the all too familiar nightmare scenario experienced by passengers arriving into the United States — and surprisingly some countries like Taiwan and even arriving into Dubai, where you queue up in an undignified herd, waiting for inefficient customs agents to process arrivals without any noticeable effort to expedite.
The recurring mystery is: these 777’s and A350’s aren’t sneaking up on anyone. There’s adequate advance notice, but many of these arrivals halls are not set up to efficiently process the disgorging hordes, tired and wanting to find a bed and a shower.
Most egregious is in the U.S., where some of the major ports for business: Miami, Dallas, New York, and Los Angeles, still leave much to be desired for someone coming to spend their hard earned tourist dollars or bring an M&A deal.
JFK and Newark airport process over 18 million passengers a year. Each one of those is an opportunity to make a solid first impression for a business woman or man, or a tourist. Instead, there’s tattered carpets, scuffed walls, and wait times that surge to over an hour without adequate climate control.
The irony is, on your way in, you walk past 20 advertisements touting the power of big data, the cloud, and how tech is transforming everything for the better. But for now, it seems customs, despite some kiosk based improvements, is stuck in the dark ages.
A few ways things could improve in the near-term:
1. The Magic of the E-Gate
The UK has recently rolled out a fee-based program by which US travelers can use the UK/European citizens lane and avoid the often horrendous morning arrival queues at Heathrow. Abu Dhabi recently rolled out a relatively painless retina scan (zap!) and quick passport registration to allow for the use of e-gates on arrival from an international flights. People with a frequent flier account can quickly register right after immigration in Hong Kong and be ushered in and out of the country quickly and efficiently.
2. Expanding Global Entry for More Nationalities
The U.S. program Global Entry has been a godsend for US passport holders, literally transforming the immigration dance from lines into a one-minute transaction. They’ve just rolled this out to a limited amount of UK passport holders who are frequent visitors. Expanding this to other nations: business travelers who come, spend money and bring business to the U.S. would be a welcome and much needed improvement.
3. Improving First Impressions
Sure, there’s a security standard that needs to be upheld for countries in terms of immigration and customs. No one is denying this. But, some remedial training of certain officers (cough, Canada) could ensure that a traveler’s first impression is something more charming than a drill sergeant. Also, I’m not sure why full tactical body armor is needed, but that’s an issue for another day.
In terms of arrivals halls, basic passenger human rights should include air conditioning in the sweltering summer months, the ability to access water and restroom facilities, and transparency in terms of wait times.
This is starting to improve — a recent landing at New York’s JFK Terminal 4 saw clearly illuminated wait times and gasps of delight from arriving foreign passengers to see the wait was 4 minutes (then again, T4 is run by the Dutch) — but there’s considerable progress to be made. People should feel welcomed when they cross a border. And those who fail to understand this will be penalized from a trade and soft diplomacy perspective.
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Photo credit: A foreign airline passenger is greeted by a Customs and Border Protection Officer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. Tami Chappell / Reuters