In Tyler Brûlé’s September 18, 2010 Financial Times column entitled “Let’s play ‘Guess where I am?” the columnist wrote: “I’ve just come off an airliner (after an eight hour, 45 minute flight from Frankfurt) and it’s absolute pandemonium. There are gate agents screaming for transfer passengers, there are sniffer dogs, there are loads of immigration officers and there’s a general sense of disorganization.” His experience descended quickly downhill from there.
The answer to his “guess where I am” question - which he reveals later in his column - is Washington, DC’s Dulles Airport on a Sunday afternoon.
Akin to a “dumpy” airport in a “shambolic banana republic” or “police state”
Brûlé’s description of the immigration hall at Dulles was that of a “corral for citizens of the country” he’d “just arrived in and a much larger maze for everyone else.” “The citizen’s line (had) about 200 people waiting to be processed, while the other pen (had) more than 1,000 passengers waiting to be interrogated. . . He said that he studied “the scene . . .and reckoned” that he “was in for an hour’s wait. When passengers from a Jeddah flight” were “ushered to the front of the line,” he quickly revised his “timetable to 90 minutes.”
As he finally approached the inspector’s booth, a bevy of immigration officers closed up shop and waddled off duty in response to an all-points bulletin announced over the public address system that advised all officials who had not signed up for overtime to “leave their post.”
Dallas-Ft. Worth: Immigration the Weak Link
My experience at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport on a Wednesday afternoon coming from an equally long, or longer flight that originated in London was nowhere as horrific as Brûlé’s. I didn’t have to deal with antiquated airline-to-terminal shuttles that were state of the art decades ago but have long past their prime; the American Airlines flight I was on landed on time and the airline’s baggage transfer system functioned far better than a near Brûlé-type disaster I remember in Denver four years ago when the pandemonium there – at every step of the way from airline ground crew incompetence to long backlog at immigration - resulted in my missing my, albeit short, connecting flight to Albuquerque.
Nevertheless, the immigration hall at Dallas-Ft Worth was the weak link in the chain on September 8. The line was far longer for non-Americans – at least double. Even those of us with the appropriate passports had to wait in a queue for twenty or more minutes before approaching the official’s booth although handicapped were exempted and wheeled to the front of the line. An INS employee was assigned to direct the able-bodied to booths to keep us, I guess, from rushing the special booth reserved for airline crew, diplomats and APEC where, guess what, no one was waiting.
A businessman in front of me observed that even this 20 plus minute wait was unusual and that he flew the London to Dallas route frequently. Just my luck to miss the normal experience.
Had, of course, the special line for diplomats, crew and APEC also been opened to the handicapped and those flying first and/or business class, the wait would have been a little shorter for everyone. This is how Heathrow operates. It even has a specially marked booth for “Political Asylum” seekers.
Doubling the number of immigration officials would have helped
Or, as what should have happened, had INS hired enough immigration officials to staff the large number of closed booths, the long lines at immigration would have also evaporated. Once I finally reached the immigration official, he was (most or all seemed to be men) courteous and efficient but then I shouldn’t have set off any alarm bells.
Roll up that tired welcome mat
Why is it that the country with the largest economy in the world can’t get the welcome mat right? It is now more than nine years since 9/11 and to have the premier international gateway to this nation’s capital resemble an airport in a “shambolic banana republic or poorly managed police state,” in Brûlé’s ascerbic words, is unconscionable.
Los Angeles International, by the way, doesn’t work much better especially when transferring terminals – but at least the planes do roll up there directly to the terminal gates.
The Singapore airport model
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, the British educated Chinese lawyer who developed that Southeast Asian underdeveloped city-state into one of the world’s top economies and the regional financial center (and whose authoritarian model of an economically well managed police state - is used as a model by China today) stated years ago that one of the first projects a country should undertake to attract foreign capital to aid in its development was to build a first class airport and high speed roads and establish well regulated and clean transportation (e.g. an efficient and modern subway and taxis with functioning meters) that whisked travelers into the capital. If you’ve ever flown into or out of Singapore, you know what he meant. The investment paid off in spades for that small island state. I fail to see why these minimal improvements can't also be implemented in democracies -including and especially this one - as well.
In contrast, the US has done nothing to upgrade its older airports. Immigration booths are obviously poorly staffed. Not only that, but to add insult to injury, the State Department (with Congressional approval) just raised the price of visas in July 2010 - yet again.
A visa now costs $140 for tourists (non-immigrant), students, academics, travelers just transiting the country, and also for certain other categories of foreigners who do not intend to stay. Fees for others – including those for fiancés, spouses and investors – are now $350. But short term visitors from “visa-waiver” countries – e.g. currently 36 mostly wealthy European and Asian ones – are excluded from the fees.
The additional funds to be used to promote tourism to the US
But what will happen to the additional funds? According to Brûlé, they will be used “to create a campaign to encourage more tourism to the US.”
Wait a minute! Don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to follow that money to its destination. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it will be farmed out to private contractors to develop tourism advertising campaigns abroad – when, in reality, the funds should be devoted to helping this country redevelop sagging infrastructure.
In this case, rehabbing international airports, significantly expanding the number of immigration officials at the booths, decreasing wait-times for visa interviews at US Consulates abroad, and seeing that immigration officials have access to the most recent databases should be the priority. After all, it's clear that at this point the US doesn't do a very good job of welcoming visitors from abroad that do travel here.
A postscript: Brûlé noted - in a follow-up column on September 25, 2010 - that he had hosted US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and his wife at a cocktail party in DC soon after his dust-up at Dulles. Brûlé said he was "charmed" not only by LaHood's passion for high speed rail, but also for "his desire for US hubs to be world-class players again." And, Brûlé added, "Needless to say, he (LaHood) wasn't thrilled to hear about the performance of the capital's international gateway."
And another post script: Don't miss Teri Schultz' report on Global Post this morning entitled "A transatlantic tourism tax? Just another painful example of how the US continues to shoot itself in the foot in terms of tourism promotion abroad.