A warm welcome to the US

Route 66

At this time of year, with half the world on the move in order to get back to or get away from friends and family for the Christmas holiday, the airport community is a shop window of the best and worst services on offer.

Route 66Because of this, websites are awash with lists of the top 10 and bottom 10 passenger experiences. The BBC News Magazine has been contacted by “hundreds of readers” in order to share their stories of American airports because, according to the site, air travellers in the US have “dedicated entire blogs to a range of gripes.”

There are quite a few complaints about airports in the US not being clean. But looking through the responses a lot of them appear to centre on immigration controls and the US Visit system, which is a Federal matter and completely out of the control of airport management.

So long queues, being fingerprinted every time you visit a US destination and unfriendly questioning by immigration staff, feature heavily in the survey answers. Anyone who has lined up at the border control through LAX, Chicago O’Hare or La Guardia will feel empathy for these people. While it is often joked that Americans in a blue uniform are prone to act like they are the reincarnation of Harry Callahan – even when administering a parking violation ticket – such lazy and inaccurate stereotyping is rarely helpful.

That said I did have to laugh at the story in the survey from the UK family who arrived at Orlando and the first two questions they were asked were:

“What are you doing here? Where are you stopping?

The father replied: “Disney.”

The border guard said: “Prove it.”

Presumably the Micky Mouse ears on top of the children’s heads were either ignored or judged to be a diversionary tactic typical of the hardened criminal.

Insider once had a strange experience going through the US Visit process at an airport on the eastern seaboard. I was visiting a conference and exhibition in town for four days in order to report on it for a London-based magazine. The officer at the border asked my occupation and the purpose of my visit. When I answered this he told me that I should have got a special journalist’s visa in order to “work” in the United States. No matter how I phrased my answer he was unhappy and appeared to be convinced that I was working illegally and somehow avoiding paying tax to the state coffers.

After a protracted discussion I was allowed in. Now a lot of people would agree with the notion that strong and secure border controls are a core pillar of competent government but if everyone shared this particular border guard’s logic, world trade and business travel would quickly grind to a halt.

I have said this before outside these pages but these are the sort of problems that arise with a blanket system that treats all passengers as potentially suspicious. Take as an example the head of security of a large UK airport who while flying to the US was picked out at random as a high risk passenger and subjected to multiple checks and questioning.

One sincerely hopes he didn’t make the mistake of saying to his inquisitors: “Do you know who I am?”

Please send your comments to gmason@55north.com

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