The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Airport

Our airports are terrible, and our airlines are finding it harder to compete. We’ve done it to ourselves through flyer-unfriendly policies.

UPDATE: January 24, 2015

FORGIVE ME for repeating myself. In earlier posts, as well as in my book, I’ve emphasized the myriad ways in which U.S. airports pale in comparison to those overseas. I hate driving a topic into the ground, but my experiences over the past few days force me to revisit this:

The other day, traveling on vacation, I flew on Cathay Pacific to Amsterdam, with a connection in Hong Kong. The connection process in HKG went like this: I stepped off the first plane into a quiet, spacious, immaculately clean concourse. After a quick and polite security screening I proceeded to my departure gate about six minutes away. A short while later I walked onto the flight to Amsterdam.

That’s it.

Compare this, if you dare, to the process of making an international connection in the United States of America. Imagine you’re a foreign traveler arriving in the U.S. from Europe or Asia, with an onward connection either domestically or to a third country:

You step off the plane and make your way to the immigration hall, which as always is packed to capacity. After standing in line for more than an hour, you’re photographed and fingerprinted before finally being released into the baggage claim and customs hall. (Or maybe it takes even longer: after docking at the gate, airline station personnel inform you that due to extremely long lines at immigration, all passengers are being asked to remain aboard the aircraft for the time being.) Not to mention, if you’re coming from a country that’s not on the U.S. visa waiver list, you’ll need to have obtained a visa in advance just to begin this process, no matter if you’re only passing through.

Your next task is to stand at the baggage carousel for twenty minutes and wait for your suitcase. American airports do not recognize the “in transit” concept, meaning that all passengers arriving from overseas, even those in-transit to a third country, are forced to claim and re-check their luggage. Once you’ve got your bag, another long line awaits at the customs checkpoint, followed by yet another line at the luggage re-check counter.

 

 

Finally you’re released into the terminal. Of course, this building is used for “international arrivals only” — another of those peculiarly American airport concepts — and your connecting flight is leaving from a totally different terminal on the other side of the airport. To get there, you walk outside and spend fifteen minutes in the rain waiting for a bus. And we haven’t gotten to the worst part yet: once you’ve reached the correct terminal, it’s time for security screening. The line at TSA is a good thirty minutes long, the guards barking at people amidst the clatter of bins and luggage.

At long last you’re in the departure concourse, which is dirty, overcrowded and loud. Babies are crying, CNN news monitors are blaring, and waves of public address announcements — most of them pointless and half of them unintelligible — wash over one another.

How long did all of that take? A solid two hours on some days. Welcome to the American airport.

Even if you’re not making a connection, the arrival process alone can often take over an hour. Back at Hong Kong, a passenger can be off the plane, through immigration and onto the train to Kowloon in fifteen minutes. I remember my last trip to Bangkok, and how I, an arriving foreigner, made it from the airplane to the taxi stand in less than ten minutes! BKK is one of the biggest and busiest international airports in the world, yet the waiting times at immigration can often be measured in seconds, never mind minutes.

Two years ago in a CNN poll of 1,200 overseas business travelers who’ve visited the United States, twenty percent said they would not visit the country again due to onerous entry procedures at airports, including long processing lines. Forty-three percent said they would discourage others from visiting. Separately, in a copy of Air Line Pilot magazine, U.S. Chamber of Commerce counsel Carol Hallett stated that “the United States risks falling behind Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as the global aviation leader.”

I’d say that battle was lost a long time ago.

Incheon (Seoul) Airport, Korea.  Photo by author.

Incheon (Seoul) Airport, Korea.    Photo by author.

To be fair, the scenario above is a worst-case to best-case comparison. Many overseas airports require a secondary security check, for example (IATA or somebody needs to step in and address the multiple screenings issue). Sometimes there’s an immigration checkpoint as well, and terminal transfers aren’t unheard of. Even some European airports go out of their way to make the travel experience tedious (CDG anyone?). However, if we’re going to compare the typical connection experience in the U.S. versus the typical connection experience in Europe or Asia, with or without the need to clear security or immigration, the latter is going to win almost every time, with scattered exceptions.

The United States of America may have pioneered commercial aviation, but today the crossroads of global air commerce are places like Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Seoul, Hong Kong and Bangkok. These are the places — not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles — that are setting the standards. They’ve got the best airports, the fastest-growing airlines, and they offer the most convenience for travelers.

Some of their success is owed to simple geography. Dubai, for instance, is perfectly placed between the planet’s biggest population centers. It’s the ideal transfer hub for the millions of people moving between Asia and Europe; Asia and Africa; North America and the Near East.  The government of the U.A.E. saw this opportunity years ago, and began to invest accordingly. Today, Dubai airport is one of the busiest, and its airline, Emirates, is now the largest in the world if you exclude the U.S. domestic market. The book value of the planes Emirates has on order — to say nothing of the 200 widebody jets it already operates — exceeds the value of the entire US airline industry!

Not far from Dubai, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport is being massively expanded, poised to become a similar mega-hub. Its hometown carrier, Turkish Airlines, in addition to winning numerous service awards, now flies to more countries than any other airline in the world.

There’s not much we can do about geography.  At the same time, there’s no excuse for the American aviation sector to have fallen so far. We’ve done it to ourselves, of course, through shortsightedness, underfunding, and flyer-unfriendly policies. The Federal government seems to treat air travel as a nuisance, something to be dissuaded, rather than a vital contributor of tens of billions of dollars to the annual economy. As a result our airports are substandard across a number of fronts, both procedurally and infrastructurally; our terminals are dirty and overcrowded; our air traffic control system is underfunded; Customs and Border Protection facilities are understaffed; airline passengers are groped and hassled, to the point where, if that CNN poll is to be believed, millions of them will refuse to visit the country.

Incheon Airport railway station.    Photo by author.

Incheon Airport railway station.    Photo by author.

And although our physical location may not be ideal as a transfer point, there are still plenty of travelers moving between continents who can and should be connecting at U.S. airports aboard U.S. carriers — if only we weren’t driving them away.

Traveling between Australia and Europe, for example, or between Asia and South America, the U.S. makes — or should make — a logical transfer point. Why can’t LAX, JFK or MIA work the way Dubai, Hong Kong or Amsterdam do? Hell, we don’t even try, beginning with the fact that our airports don’t allow for transit passengers. Connecting via the U.S. entails an enormous hassle that you don’t find in most places overseas.

Flying from Australia to Europe, a traveler has two options. He or she can fly westbound, via Asia (through Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong) or the Middle East (Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, etc.), or eastbound via the U.S. West Coast (Los Angeles or San Francisco). Even though the flying times are about the same, almost everybody will opt for the westbound option. The airports are spotless and packed with amenities; the connections painless and efficient. Changing planes at LAX on the other hand, a passenger has to stand in at least three different lines, be photographed and fingerprinted, collect and re-check his bags, and endure the full TSA rigmarole before slogging through a noisy terminal to the departure gate.

Traveling between Asia and South America, it’s a similar story. Europe to Latin America, same thing. Few passengers on these routes will choose to connect in the United States because we’ve made it so damn inconvenient. We can only guess at how many millions of passengers our carriers lose out on each year because of all this.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok.    Photo by author.

Insult to injury, airline tickets in America are taxed to the hilt. Overall flying is a lot more affordable than it has been in decades past, but if it feels expensive, one of the reasons is the multitude of government-imposed taxes and fees. There’s an excise tax, the 9/11 Security Fee, the Federal Segment Fee, the Passenger Facility Charges, International Arrival and Departure Taxes, Immigration and Customs user fees, an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service charge, and so on — a whopping 17 total fees! Airline tickets are taxed at a higher federal rate than alcohol and tobacco.

Finally, you should know that the government-run Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States provides billions of dollars in below-market financing each year to carriers overseas, helping deliver hundreds of American-built aircraft at rates not available to our own airlines. This is one of the reasons Persian Gulf carriers such as Emirates and Etihad Airways have been able to expand so rapidly. U.S. taxpayers are in fact subsidizing the growth of carriers that compete directly with our own. Ex-Im’s assistance is helpful to Boeing, but it gives foreign carriers a strong competitive advantage and undermines the health of our airline industry.

 

Related story: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH AIRPORTS?

 

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165 Responses to “The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Airport”

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  1. Randy says:

    You’re spot on! I would quibble with one point, however: I fly into or through HKG multiple times per year, and in my experience, the immigration lines are usually horrendous. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have “E-Channel” access and can skip the lines and use a kiosk, I’d look for other places for an overnight. (Other airports with usually terribly long immigration include LHR and SYD. LHR is the only airport in the world where security is worse than in the U.S., with unreasonable and arbitrary confiscations and full-bag searches.)

  2. Jock Mcthingiemibobb says:

    Yep, return flights from New Zealand to the UK. Stopover at Incheon airport. Free to wander about the departure lounge, good shopping, food and rooms to sleep in if necessary.

    I once made the mistake of using our overpriced national carrier who go via LAX. After being fingerprinted and Iris scanned like some sort of criminal, the TSA (I assume) put everyone in transit to the UK (approx 150 people) in a room for 2 hours. No shops, no duty free purchases, nowhere to sleep. Free wifi and beverages were all that was given to placate us. At least we didn’t have to muck around with baggage as it was the same aeroplane. Would rather they’d held us on the plane, at least we wouldn’t have had to deal with the TSA. Wonderful people (I stopped over for 3 days on the return) but I’m certainly in no rush to ever transit via the USA again.

  3. Cam says:

    Your last point about the export/import bank really is quite unfair. Although the bank itself is a political hot potato, pretty much everyone agrees that increased American exports create jobs.

    Critics argue that the possibility that loans might not be repaid creates an implied subsidy that benefits foreign customers of American products. The US oligopoly airlines like to point this perspective out, but conveniently neglect to mention the many subsidies they receive from taxpayers. My intuition is that the domestic airlines ultimately receive far more direct (and indirect) Federal assistance…although I do not have statistics that prove this.

    I’m not in a place to argue the morality of manufacturing vs service jobs, or what enterprise should receive which subsidies. I just don’t think that it is fair to single out the Export-Import Bank as a significant factor in the competitiveness of American Airlines.

  4. Alastair says:

    My last trip to the US arrived in Newark, which can be truly awful so I was more than a little apprehensive. That last trip, though, was superb – I was going up the escalator to the Amtrak station within about 45 minutes of disembarking, having cleared immigration and customs and picked up my bag.

    Newark not only has a local connection to New York City, but has rail connections to the entire North East via Amtrak and SEPTA.

    My actual journey was to Philadelphia and, on a code-share with United, my onward travel was by train, so no need to re-check luggage or clear security, and no cramming into a commuter jet for an hour. Instead, I had a short wait on the platform followed by a one-hour trip in a large, comfortable seat with a power socket and free wifi. I was probably half-way to Philly before I could have been in the departure lounge had my connection been by air.

    On the matter of fees, I finally managed to get a break-down of the costs, though it took a ridiculous amount of time on the phone and internet to do it.

    The round fare was GBP 541.76 made up as follows:
    207.00 Flight
    5.00 Booking Fee
    213.00 Fuel Surcharge
    67.00 UK Air Passenger Duty (tax)
    12.36 UK Passenger Service Charge
    3.30 US Customs Fee
    10.60 (twice) IS International Transportation Tax
    3.00 US Animal/Plant Inspection
    4.20 US Immigration Fee
    3.00 US Security Fee
    2.70 US Passenger Facility Charge

    So GBP 69.36 was UK tax and GBP 37.40 was US tax.

    The interesting one is the fuel “surcharge”. It implies that United had originally planned to operate the flight without fuel. You wonder at what point in the planning process someone who knew better got involved…

  5. Sean S. says:

    To a certain extent I find this grossly unfair, because comparing the whole infrastructure of the USA against city-states such as Singapore is like wondering why a Smart car zips around faster than a double decker semi. Its nonsensical, especially when one looks at the often unusual city/state/federal split when it comes to infrastructure that simply does not exist in many other countries. More over, there are plenty of well-constructed, easy to use airports in the US; the problem is that many of those are not the major international gateways and people don’t use them because of price. Many smaller, more direct regional airports are very well put together, but people prefer the lower cost options of many of the larger airports, which are not great.

    Do we need to reform our transit visa system? Yes. Do we need to improve our at times ridiculous transport security policies? Certainly. Does that mean the US air system is the world’s worst? Certainly not.

  6. oscar delgado says:

    Your description of the American airport conditions is completely accurate. I arrived just yesterday from a trip from Peru and I spent 2.5 hrs battling between gates, custom officials, checking points and airport employees that barely spoke English (that was Miami airport) besides being rude and impolite. Pa’S are non-stop and as you accurately pointed out are heavily accented and pointless.

  7. Dave S says:

    “Insult to injury, airline tickets in America are taxed to the hilt.”

    Yes, the US imposes a lot of individual fees (17!), but each one is quite low so that, collectively, they often amount to less than what other countries impose in just 1 line item. And what really matters is whether the total amount of the fees is outrageous, not how many of them there are.

    Compare flying a roundtrip from Anywhere USA to Toronto… even if the airline prices both directions at the same fare… if you book the segments separately, you’ll see that the US-to-Canada segment (which attracts mainly US taxes and fees) is a LOT less than the Canada-to-US segment, on the order of $50 or so. It’s why I (and many Canadians in the know) often take airlines TO Vancouver… and then fly back FROM Seattle.

    Finally, I find it ironic that Patrick is complaining in this article about how wretched American airports are (TRUE!) and yet also then complains about how pricey the fees are for using them. It reminds me of the joke about the 2 old ladies dining in Manhattan. Lady 1 says “The food here is terrible.” Lady 2 replies, “Yes! And the portions are so small.” The US isn’t going to magically get awesome airports… somebody will have to pay to upgrade them in the form of higher taxes or fees.

    • Patrick says:

      >> Finally, I find it ironic that Patrick is complaining in this article about how wretched American airports are (TRUE!) and yet also then complains about how pricey the fees are for using them.<< Look at some of the things these fees and taxes are actually spent on. How many of those things address the problems? These taxes and fees are not used to build or design airport terminals, for example. And much of the money is diverted. And how many of the fees (TSA and security) in some ways make things worse?

  8. Randall says:

    We discovered this while living overseas for years, and returning to LA yearly. We started favoring (paying a premium) for airlines flying from their hub directly to LAX, over airlines that connected in the US (usually JFK for us). LAX is a lousy transit airport, but not too bad for arrivals, because lines aside, Immigration, baggage claim, and Customs are all close together, less than 100 yds from the street. It is also our familiar “home” airport, and we avoided awful US domestic service entirely. So we gave our business mainly to Emirates – once you try Emirates, it is hard to fly anyone else – thus depriving US airlines of revenue.
    We would fly US carriers if their service was competitive, or if the fares were much cheaper commensurate with service quality.

  9. Yes, you hit the nail on the head. I hold dual passports US / AU. When I worked 10 years in Australia, frequently flying to London, Amsterdam and Paris, once and only once in 10 years did I connect through SFO. All the bad things you mentioned happened to me even though I had the convenience of a US Passport.

    I settled on a preferred route ADL-SIN-LHR. Not only is Singapore Airlines a terrific airline, the Singapore airport is a lot of fun to hang out in or even sleep for a few hours in a room for $50 when jet lagged. Or simply shower and eat great food in the Singapore Airlines club. What a treat!

    Apart from all the inconvenience, the revenue lost by US airport authorities from lack of transit areas full of shopping and restaurants, would be staggering.

    Thank you for a great column.

    Cheers,
    Jim

  10. Deirdre says:

    Hi,

    I’m glad you called out CDG as an exemplar of hideous European airport transfer scenarios. It really is beyond awful, as my husband (the possessor of a private pilot’s license, and the sort of guy who keeps a portable aviation radio in the car in case we happen to find ourselves somewhere where having it will provide us with hours of quality time together) and I discovered on a recent (2013) trip to Central Europe from Canada. I booked tickets through a travel agent who may have been trying to punish me for my strident refusal to even consider any transfers through the USA when she booked the first leg of our journey through CDG. On our outbound leg from YYZ to Prague we had the great pleasure of getting off our filthy Air France flight (it was fine when we got on, but by the time we disembarked it looked like the ghost of Keith Moon had occupied every seat, and the cabin crew seemed not to know that busing the fold down tables might be part of meal service) to find ourselves a fair distance from any terminal building, and it was downhill from there. Our return trip, KLM through Amsterdam, was a delight, however. More recently we went to (and from) New Orleans through Atlanta, and the fact that the transfer experience was almost as bad as CGD (right down to the distinct pong of vomit, although in Atlanta there was evidence of cleaning crews on the case) made me realize why my husband had given serious through to going through Moscow (where Edward Snowden was camped out at the time) or Ankara (undergoing serious politcal unrest) would be preferable to any American airport at all.

  11. Helen Fiske says:

    Try the cesspool of all airports…..Newark! It is impossible to do an international connection at that airport. I came from Munich to Newark, to connect to Dulles. It took 2 hours!!! And i was in a wheelchair …..This has happened before. Too many TSA checkpoints, changed terminals, and also the surly TSA ladies with attitudes. Newark will never get it right and we the paying public are victims.

  12. Gary Michaels says:

    ‘You will continue to receive exactly that which you will put up with’
    Anon

  13. Fritz Steiner says:

    We’re planning for a trip to Australia from our home in Huntsville, AL. Last September Qantas introduced non-stop DFW-SYD service with an A-380. AA has a code share with Qantas HSV-DFW-SYD. It’s a winner for us because we can check our bags all the way through — no baggage charges — and go through TSA in HSV, a very under used airport, with relative ease. as we’re both “senior citizens” — I’m > 75 so I don’t have total off my shoes, etc.”

    Anyhow, once we arrive at DFW there will probably be a terminal change but that will be a piece of cake because we stay airside on the inter terminal trains — so no DFW TSA — and no LAX (see below)!!

    In 2013 we went to New Zealand. We had to fly Delta from HSV-ATL, layover there for 1-1/2 hours, then fly non-stop to LAX arriving at Terminal 5. It was under construction, of course. so we were on our own to find the way and make our way to Terminal 2 using the terrible shuttle bus. Life got better once we got to ANZ check-in, bit we still had to endure TSA again. Then we went to the Koru Club and all was great from there on

    Arrival in AKL was smooth. No delays at all. We encountered none of the surliness that we met at LAX. Courteous people greeted us at every step of the customs and immigration procedure.

    Coming back, arrival at LAX was surly all the way in an arrival hall that looked more like a WWII Displaced Persons processing center than a 21st century international airport.

  14. Dima says:

    Picking and choosing can make for a great argument. While I would agree that SOME international airports are better than SOME US ones, this is a long stretch. I have not connected in HKG. But I have connected/flew out of Frankfurt, Singapore, Manila and Bangkok. And many others, but these four jump out in my mind right away – good luck making a six minute connection in Frankfurt. Singapore and Bangkok are gigantic with no reasonable way to move around but going on an epic hike to reach your gate. Manila should be leveled to the ground way before Kansas City (I’ve flown out of KCI regularly for couple of years and while I was no fan of the setup, I never thought it was terrible). Even in Amsterdam, which I would agree is a great airport in general, it still took me a while to figure out my way around to my next gate.

  15. Mario Amadeo says:

    I agree with the person who touched on the subject of connecting in DFW. If you were to consider an airport with smooth connection, to national and international destinations, DFW makes it decent, plus one VERY nice Centurion lounge. Hey, it’s Texas.

  16. Mario Amadeo says:

    Thanks for this great insight Patrick. US airports have become quite the disgrace. I was recently connecting to Australia via LAX and was flabbergasted to see how dirty and run down the terminals are. Well, it’s California after all.

    I want to point out that Latin America is no better. My extensive experience traveling to the region gives me latitude to tell you that NO airport there comes close to some of our own here in the US, with the possible exception of SCL. Forget airports in Brazil. Even the “new” terminal at GRU is a product of severely incompetent planning. Halls are narrow, elevators are small and parking is already over capacity. Add to that the badly implemented copied policies of he US and you have even more chaos. Let’s send that poll to Latin America travelers to see what they say.

    • oscar delgado says:

      I’ll have to agree. The Lima airport has so many security and immigration check points that boggles my mind.

  17. Tim says:

    The reason it’s such a hassle to transfer from international flights in the U.S.? BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL US AND BOMB US AND AIRPORTS ARE GROUND ZERO FOR THESE IDIOTS, PERIOD! It demands a much higher level of security than almost anywhere on the planet. You think it’s great traveling through AMS? Ask the NW/DL253 PAX on the AMS-DTW flight in 2009 what they think.

    • Mario Amadeo says:

      Not really sir. If we implemented policies that are efficient and did a bit of (brace yourselves) profiling, security procedures could be streamlined and made more efficient. You don’t think that there are threats in other countries? They sure are there, but these other countries take a proactive approach to security, not a reactive one.

      • MikeRourke says:

        You seem to think that the USA is the only country in the world which has suffered terrorism during the last years. UK has had many, and that was before Islamic fundamentalists. Take for example the IRA. France and Germany have also been targeted. All Europeans I have met have found this treatment discriminating and humiliating especially, as in my case recently, I was arriving as a guest to spend my Euros in your country. Perhaps Americans might understand this feeling if they had to go through the same procedure on arriving in Europe. I don’t necessarily expect friendliness, but politeness should be the norm.
        When arriving at Newark from Amsterdam I have never met such a miserable, unfriendly, power-wielding official. I’ve gone through faster with better treatment at both Domodedevo and Pudong.

  18. Gary says:

    One disagreement (but which helps your point) — from Australia, or NZ, you can fly eastbound to Europe via YVR where I, as an American, have enjoyed the easy transit experience at a wonderful airport flying SFO/YVR/LHR or MUC.

    If you think about it, there are plenty of situations in the US where even if you are travelling on the same carrier (or its subsidiary/contractor domestically, your connection experience can be miserable (like UA at IAH where they use 4 terminals, and ‘E’ is the one for international flights, except when it’s not).

    Also, if you compare the average US metro mass transit experience with the typical European, i.e. multiple fares per agency and station-based pricing vs. integrated zone-based fares regardless of mode of travel, we also fail miserably, not to mention the significant discounts available in Europe to anyone (Oyster card in London, 10-trip tickets in Spain) vs. what is typical here in the states.

  19. James McNelis says:

    Fewer than 50% of Americans have passports; hard to ramp up political support on issues of international travel.

  20. Paul says:

    Last two flights to New Zealand from London both on a single flight (same plane continuing onto NZ), just a refueling/restocking stop of 2-3 hours:

    via Hong Kong, disembark and head to entrance to departure area, boarding pass checked I am continuing on flight, immediately allowed into departure lounge, time to find the showers to freshen up and lots of places to eat/drink/shop in a large clean area before reboarding.

    Via LAX (terminal 2 only) – disembark, queue for US Immigration, queue for bags, cue for customs, drop off bag just outside customs to be put back on same plane, head upstairs, queue for TSA checkpoint, finally into departure lounge. Only bar/restaurant is full, queue to get in if I want a beer. VERY limited shops and lack of seats around the assigned gate – all in all NOT great way to spend 4 hours after a 12 hour flight.

  21. Susan says:

    Nothing personal against airline crews. But the reason I haven’t given the airlines my business since 2009 is because of TSA. Except for a few brave pilots like Michael Roberts, airline employees and their companies have not uttered a single word criticizing TSA for its faux security and violation of the constitutional rights of their good flying customers.

    At the end of 2010, going into the busy holiday seasons, airline crews pushed back against invasive screening protocols and came with inches of going on strike – because crews didn’t like being groped and scanned. TSA then had to back off the crews – proof right there that their procedures are worthless. Congress said the procedures were theatrics in a 2011 decade review report.

    Had the airline crews considered their customers and continued to push back, maybe airports wouldn’t be the quagmire they are now. Now we have a nation of wusses jumping at shadows, who somehow think that confiscating snowglobes and applesauce is “security.” There are times when I can understand the perspective of the airlines when they boot off childish, unruly passengers. And I know that TSA was put in place to provide lawsuit immunity for the airlines. However, I cannot forgive the airlines for failing to push back against these invasive and worthless TSA procedures and they will never have my business again until they do.

    I have already resigned myself to the fact that I will never fly again. What I resent is everybody’s belief in these faux security protocols and the encroachment of DHS and TSA in more and more venues.

    • Patrick says:

      The point you make is one that I’ve made myself more than once in my posts and in my book. (You include airline employees in your list of those who “haven’t uttered a single word.” Well I am an airline employee and over the past fourteen years I don’t think anybody has publicly complained about TSA more than I have. You mention Michael Roberts but not ME?)

      Basically, carriers don’t want to be seen by security zealots as lobbying “against security,” even when that security is arguably useless or ineffective. They feel they have too much to lose, liability-wise, and they’re probably right. Plus, until security hassles drive away a measurably significant number of customers, they have no real impetus to complain.

      And say what you want of airlines, the American people haven’t protested much either. We whine and complain and tell snarky stories about something that happened in the security line, but how many people have formally complained, in writing or even with a phone call — to TSA, to a Congressperson, to anybody?

  22. Mehmet Imre says:

    A very realistic and up-to-date analysis. It has become common practice in Europe to opt only for direct flights to US final destinations, in order to avoid subsequent US domestic flights and making connections, if necessary, within Europe only.

  23. Paul Stafford says:

    Spot on as usual, Patrick. The US always prioritizes bureaucratic complexity over user convenience when it comes to travel. Except, of course, that some international arrival terminals now obviate my global entry investment with identical terminals for the masses — us citizens only, that is…

    The question is, how do we do something other than piss into the wind about it? It seems an impossible hurdle to bring US airports and transfer protocols both up to international standards, especially when we are busy closing existing reliever airports rather than investing in our infrastructure.

    Ideas?

  24. Kevin says:

    Ever connected at DFW. None of those problems exist, except for having to go through immigration even when in transit. There are automated machines even for non- global entry passengers, and it’s the same terminal for international arrivals and international departure.

    • Patrick says:

      I agree that some U.S. airports aren’t quite awful, and some foreign airports are. But on the whole… Also, the experience is very different if you’re an American citizen versus an arriving foreigner. citizen. That’s most of what my point was about. Those automated kiosks, for instance, are only for Americans.

      • Gus Me says:

        “Those automated kiosks, for instance, are only for Americans.”

        Wrong. The non-Global Entry automated kiosks are for U.S. Citizens, U.S. Permanent Residents, Canadian Citizens and Citizens of countries allowed to use the visa-waiver program.

  25. Joe PA24 says:

    All very true and the same could be said about our railways and roads

  26. Maggie says:

    I totally agree with you. I travel extensively, am based in Canada, and dread having to change planes in the US. I have missed connections on a number of occasions because of the lack of an effective transit procedure. Why on Earth transit passengers need to go through immigration with everyone who is remaining in the country and then have to claim baggage only to immediately check it again, followed by enduring another security scan. It defies logic! I have deliberately flown via Iceland and Dubai on two different occasions rather than have to travel through the U.S. The system that is in place clearly discourages many travellers from using US airlines which in an era of high competition is not good. Thank you for letting me vent!

  27. Leo Volz says:

    For what it’s worth, my experience connecting through CDG traveling from Munich to Philadelphia was every bit as bad as what you described for American airports, maybe worse.

  28. Cappy Swope says:

    This is one of the consequences to attempts to “shrink the government ’til it’s small enough to drown it in a bathtub”.

  29. Timothy Madden says:

    Most excellent information and analysis!

    The final point concerning the role of the import/export bank, especially, piqued my memory of a phd thesis that I read in the university grad school library during Christmas break in 1985. It was titled to the effect: “Capital cost recovery in the airline industry”, and the author’s principal thesis was (and remains) that each successive generation of commercial aircraft is never really paid for, but only the financing is carried until inflation, manifesting in the cost of the next generation, makes the previous generation’s costs proportionally reduced. Whatever it cost to develop the 747 in the 1960’s, the total was rendered relatively insignificant by five years of average 20% inflation from 1978 to 1983.

    Or Edmonton’s 60,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium completed on time and under budget for $21 million in 1978, compared with the $600 million cost of Toronto’s 50,000-seat SkyDome stadium eight high-infaltion years later. The whole cost of the last generation is now just a loan fee in the cost of the next generation.

    So the import/export bank is not just a direct financial subsidy, but the general expansion of financial assets is itself a means of paying for things that were never financially affordable to begin with.

  30. WE says:

    Also: Discourteous, incompetent CPB personnel.
    1. Flight CUN-DTW. 400-500 people wait in line to go through passport control. CPB officer comes from an office and yells at the crowd “Can anyone here talk Spanish?”
    2. RIX-HEL flight (when Latvia still had separate passport control from Schengen area): I heard Finnish passport control officer speak German, English, French, and likely Finnish with various passengers. When he greeted me, he SMILED.

  31. Polarisguy says:

    Spot on essay! It’s difficult to understand why the airports, in concert with the airlines are in such a disconnect in the area of International travel. Just looking at what was once the World’s crossroad airport, JFK, is a disgrace to the Nation. It’s dirty, congested, dis-organized and confusing to say the least. I dread having to fly in and out of there when going overseas and I am embarrassed by it representing our country. The security lines are chaos on steroids. TSA (thousands standing around) is rude crude and socially unacceptable. Plus as you mentioned the taxes; Holy cow! talk about “tax and repent”! It’s amazing what they get away with when they have a captive audience.

  32. Jim Stoutamire says:

    I certainly understand your point and view LAX as the pits even transferring between domestic US flights. That said it’s not all delightful outside the US. Flying British Airways from Tel Aviv (perhaps the best passenger security in the world if you care about that sort of thing) to the US with a transfer at Heathrow from BA to BA. Exit plane; follow signs to connecting flight WITHIN THE SAAME terminal; repeat security check of your person and hand baggage without at least having to remove shoes. Excuse me I already went thru security at Tel Aviv and have never left the “sterile” area.

  33. Jeff says:

    Your an idiot

  34. Frank Vivanti says:

    I have to agree with you.Last year I flew into Miami from London UK,with my family.
    It took us three hours and forty minutes to clear immigration pick up our hire car and get to
    Our hotel which was a ten minute drive from the airport!!!!
    Why do I need to have my photo taken every time I come to the USA.I have an ESTAand my prints are on
    File,surely a quick fingerprint check is all that is needed.We are off to Spain in future USA is not worth the hassle.

  35. James Wattengel says:

    In the old days when the present Delta Terminal (which I believe that you have visited) was the Pan Am Terminal it was a modern (for the time), space-age. It had open areas and was easy to navigate between gates. It was cool as was the TWA terminal.

    A complete renovation was, of course, necessary because of larger planes and modern technology. The result is a junky place with wall-to wall kiosks cluttering every possible square inch to maximize income.

  36. Juergen Rossmann says:

    I also agree with you: I once fly from Frankfurt to Guatemala via Dallas. When I came to immigration and told the officer that I am on transit to Guatemala he send me back to the end of the line and asked me to think about my reason. There is no transit in USA. This reminds me to the old times of communist boarder in the two parts of Germany. The US TSA officers had the same behavior like the east German officers

  37. siriusinzim says:

    Dear Patrick

    Your paragraph below

    “Finally, you should know that the government-run Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States provides billions of dollars in below-market financing each year to carriers overseas, helping deliver hundreds of American-built aircraft at rates not available to our own airlines. This is one of the reasons Persian Gulf carriers such as Emirates and Etihad Airways have been able to expand so rapidly. U.S. taxpayers are in fact subsidizing the growth of carriers that compete directly with our own. Ex-Im’s assistance is helpful to Boeing, but it gives foreign carriers a strong competitive advantage and undermines the health of our airline industry.”

    I fear that you have not properly briefed yourself ‘for your arrival’ in this part of your article.

    Tut tut for a protocol oriented pilot. Here’s a bit of CRM for you.

    The first distinction you need to draw is the difference between domestic financing and export financing. US airlines buying US aircraft is domestic funding. US airlines buying European aircraft ( OK its Airbus ) is export financing.

    The basis for export financing of aircraft is exactly the same as between the US and Europe as it is governed by an international agreement which fixes the ‘subsidy’ equally to all.

    And its not really a subsidy, simply a base can’t go below rate which is publicly defined.

    This is the document here.

    The January 2015 Arrangement on Officially Supported Export Credits [TAD/PG(2015)1] is now available

    ( if this link doesn’t transfer google/bing OECD Arrangement for the OECD Official site)

    So if a US airline wants to be competitive on your ‘subsidy’ argument it should get the ‘subsidy’ by buying Airbus whose sovereign ECA’s will then pass the same ‘subsidy’ to the US airline. Duh.

    Does this happen?

    Of course it does. All the big airlines have mixed Airbus/Boeing fleets notwithstanding the aircraft economics, wherever they are. The interesting ones are those which are principally single source fleet e.g. Southwest, Jetblue.

    Speak to Randy Tinseth or John Leahy about this ‘subsidy’. Its relatively non-existent and you don’t see Boeing or Airbus using it as a ‘weapon’ because it doesn’t exist.

    But they wouldn’t wield the talking point anyway as they are beneficiaries of the system.

    The real problem is that when getting ‘cash in the bank’ funding, the Wall Street banks, who provide the ‘cash in bank’ ( not the ECA/Exim Bank), don’t lend without taking risk and term into account.

    US Airlines pay a higher premium on risk because they are ‘risky’ borrowers. All the US major airlines have threatened or actually used Chapter 11 protection to give banks lending to them a ‘haircut’. The consequence is that banks charge a higher fee ( and I am using the word ‘fee’ to include higher interest rates as well as other fees ) to US airlines.

    Have Emirates, Singapore, Cathay, Lufthansa ….. and the list grows …. ever used or threatened their banks with the equivalent of Chapter 11?

    None, in my recollection ever have. Hence they have never given the banks a haircut ( sleepless nights maybe ) and, in consequence, demand a lower premium for risk on their borrowing to fund their aircraft.

    Your statement “that the government-run Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States provides billions of dollars in below-market financing each year to carriers overseas” is incorrect.

    US Banks lending US dollars to US airlines charge a market rate based on market considerations which is a higher rate than the same US dollar US Banks are lending to foreign airlines. The risk premium is the difference not the ‘subsidy’ that the ECA system allegedly provides.

    The US Exim Bank’s advantage occurs in that it is an agency of the Federal Government and can obtain funds at a lower interest rate than the European ECA’s can obtain the same US dollar ( country risk again !). That margin is an accrual to the US taxpayer not a cost as it does not affect the end-user market rate.

    There is a significant amount of ‘static’ in this area as it involves political as well as commercial considerations and each party puts out its ‘talking points’ for its benefit. The ‘subsidy’ point is put out principally to avoid looking inward and seeing things one does not wish to see if they can be avoided.

  38. Jeff says:

    Having made relatively painless international transfers at London Heathrow in the past (even with a terminal transfer), I was looking forward to a transfer in BA’s fairly new Terminal 5 on an AMS-LHR-MIA trip, all on BA. Little did I know that even though we were immediately transferring to another flight in the same terminal, and certainly not “entering” the UK, we still had to stand in line for over an hour to have our passports checked, and then continue on to another wait to go thru security again. Two hours and twenty minutes between flights and we barely made our connection.

  39. Mo says:

    Airline customers prove time and time again that the majority of them would rather spend hours online looking to pay a couple dollars less for a ticket and bitch about the experience than pay a couple dollars more and get a better experience. Airlines know this so do everything they can to offer the lowest price; if they could sell more expensive seats, they would — you know, to make money. As far as airports go, there is an investment required to build one and maintain it. If the airline is the one building the terminal, see above. If the airlines are leasing the gates, then the incentive of most airport authorities is to maximize the revenue from the gates. Sadly many of the local airport taxes go to fund schools, etc., rather than ensure a nice experience in the terminal. Heck, the FAA just recently had to revise the interpretation and enforcement of the airline fuel tax. Many localities were taxing aviation fuel and using the money for anything other than the “aviation related purposes” the regulation required. Don’t even get me started on the security. But, it has been shown that the majority of people “feel safer” when they see it all and that is the only thing Congresspeople care about. No Congressperson ever got elected for being “soft” on national security and hey, it’s the only thing they can agree to spend money on anymore (other than their own re-election campaigns). Bottom line — there is no strategy for this; it is a free-for-all of federal, state, local and company interests, fees, and taxes; and the consumer is least important at the end of the day because we are all chasing the bottom line and probably not voting.

  40. Rod Bradley says:

    I’m an airline pilot and fortunately I’m about to retire. I love my job but you are 101% accurate. I HATE AIR TRAVEL.

  41. Ian says:

    Not to mention those TSA agents who treat you as if you are in boot camp and customs and immigration officers who even on a good day are barely polite

  42. Mark Richards says:

    An eye-opening experience, my first international travel was landing at Kansai International — that strip of artificial island (sinking, sadly) – which serves as a central hub in a very busy province.

    Organized, efficient, gorgeous, spotlessly clean, and with staff who take pride in their appearance, demeanor and in their work. Getting into Japan was a 5-minute process and was nothing short of welcoming. Arriving at the gleaming airport, with its attractive efficiencies and lovely shops left me wanting to linger.

    In dreadful contrast, returning was a total downer and our welcome home nothing short of an active insult, prompting me to simply get back on the airplane and wave bye-bye. Filthy comes to mind, followed by disorganized, crowded, surly, and mundane. I went from high to very low.

    Patrick has a wonderful opportunity to gain perspective, traveling internationally. Patrick has a rare seat to give us the full story.

  43. carbpow says:

    I agree. As a once a month overseas traveler, mostly to Asia I HATE coming back to the USA. I will never forget a PA greeting at Houston letting all of us know not to joke around or hassle TSA lest we violate some USA law and be imprisoned. I felt like I landed in some totalitarian developing country. Why in the world can I have my bag checked all the way thru to anywhere in Asia but not back to my home airport in the USA? My goodness the bag has already traveled 10000 miles, was inspected by prior to my boarding by people at least as competent as TSA and has neither blown up or given anyone Ebola yet.

    If a visitors first impression of the USA are its entry airports I would imagine they are not impressed. This is the all powerful US of A? You guys can’t even produce a decent airport and the police state really sucks! Take you’re ‘we’re number one’ chants somewhere else, you should be embarrassed.”

  44. Chad H says:

    I found that Reikjavic is a nice transit point for cross Atlantic flights. It’s small, quiet, not over retail-ized, no annoying entry and rexit process to change planes, and Icelandair seem to do a good job of pairing flight times to avoid waiting.

  45. Nigel says:

    Your article is spot on, Patrick.
    To wit, standing outside O’Hare and Philadelphia airpots recently the loudspeakers at curbside were announcing gate closings!
    Inside O’Hare at the gate, announcements about parking restrictions!
    What gives?
    This country can be so very effective and efficient when it turns its attention to underperforming sectors – why do airports continue to stink? Is it the government oversight?
    Here in Boston, leadership of Massport which manages Logan airport was given to a previous governor’s state police chauffeur.
    Hard to believe, but true;
    http://www.shhair.org/Articles/MassportNeedsLeadership.htm
    Finally, don’t get me started on the BS that accompanies being processed by an armed, surly and monosyllabic immigration agent – what an atrocious way to welcome guests to our country.
    Thanks for your informative and engaging blogs – keep them coming!

  46. Gemma says:

    I’m so glad a professional also dislikes the idea of having to go through those lines and luggage even when you are only passing through (something many people do in Miami coming from Europe to S America)

    One thing though. I myself love British Airways, but that Gatwick airport is another pain. Still not avoiding it because of how much I like the airline, but oh boy.

  47. Dan Landis says:

    I remember transfering from domestic to international flight in LAX and having to run across a parking lot to get from one terminal to another rather than wait for a shuttle. (About 2 1/2 hrs).

    I trust my transfer in a few days from Beijing to Singapore via Hong Kong will be seamless and much more comfortable.

  48. Daniel says:

    You have some good points, but on others you have overstated your case. You provide the example of Hong Kong where you don’t need to go through security and immigration, but in every European airport I’ve been to, you need to go through at least security (immigration as well if travelling within schengen). On my recent trip through LFPG, it took me 35 minutes to get from my arrival gate to my departure gate despite the fact that there was no line at security. You also used the example of Istanbul’s airport – what a mess! I would take KPHL any day over the bus-in-bus-out disaster that is Ataturk. It took me over an hour to make that connection (my sister-in-law, on a different trip, missed her hourlong connection because she was travelling with a 12 year old and a 3 month old). Meanwhile, when I landed at KLAX a few weeks ago, I cleared immigration in about 5 minutes and would have been out of the airport in a total of 30 minutes if not for the fact that I arrived on the A380 where it took an hour to get all of the bags out. When I arrived in KPHL with a domestic connection a couple of years ago, there was almost no line at immigration, my bags were already on the belt, and rechecking was as easy as handing my bag to the security screener.
    My point is, if you take the worst case scenario of US flying and the best case scenario of foreign flying, foreign flying will sound better, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. Could CBP be more efficient? Yes. Is Ex-Im stupid? Absolutely. Is there any reason that your bag needs to be in your hand when you go through Customs if you’re making a connection? No, and CYUL has a really good system for that. You have some good points, but your flair for the dramatic distracts from them.

  49. Stephen says:

    “American airports do not recognize the “in transit” concept, meaning that all passengers arriving from overseas, even if they’re merely transiting to a third country, are forced to claim and re-check their luggage.”

    You are blaming airports for the law? Airports have no authority to override federal law.

  50. Robert says:

    Reminds me of one of my “favorite” moments at Philly.
    When my wife and I had a question about departure times, the “customer service rep” responded, “What do ya wan’ ME to do ’bout it??”, upon which she turned around and resumed her convo with the boyz….

  51. Robert says:

    One of my “favorite” memories was in Philly, when my wife and I had a problem with departure times. Upon inquiring at the “service counter”, I was asked, “Wha do ya wan ME to do ’bout it?” at which point the “service person” turned around and resumed her convo with the boyz…..

  52. Naja says:

    One additional item missing here is that in order to transit through our great airports you must have a valid US visa. Just claiming you are passing through is not enough. You must undergo the visa process in advance of your trip just to change planes. Off course the visa fee will be part of your trip too.

  53. Octavio says:

    First time I travel to asia I tooked a connection in LAX arriving from MEX and departing to HKG, I went through all those stuff, being photographed, finger printed etc. not to mention that a visa is needed to transit, anyway the whole process didn’t take more tan 90 minutes, but in the return trip from HKG to MEX transiting LAX was a longer wait, I got my connection bearly before the flight was closed.

  54. John LM says:

    It’s almost culture shock visiting other countries and seeing how well everything runs on the back end. Security is a mixed bag, some countries it’s streamlined and others its just as bad as the US. Funny enough I went through Berlin Tegel twice in one trip and each time was completely different. The first go through was a huge mess with every passenger being patted down, then 5 days later it took all of 2 minutes even though the terminal was packed. The only thing that sucks about traveling so freely in the Euope is that I have a bunch of passport stamps from entering at Heathrow and CDG but none from my actual destination like Germany, Poland or Hungary.

  55. Jonathan says:

    For all the reasons stated above, as much as possible I will not transit in the US. I would rather transit in a foreign country and try to avoid US airports when I can.

  56. Patrick, There’s not much I can add to your accurate assessment of how America competes, or rather fails to compete, with other countries that understand the economic engine of aviation. We have a myopic view of air travel in the States, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Carol Hallett’s prediction that “the United States risks falling behind” came to pass years ago.

  57. Seko says:

    I have travelled the US a lot as a foreign passenger (German). I have had pleasant and unpleasant experiences. My first time was a flight with Delta from Berlin via JFK and SLC to Las Vegas in 1995. I felt very well treated and received a warm welcome upon entering US soil. Back than I was 15 and totally amazed, so maybe that contributed to the good experience.

    But recently the experience has declined. Of my past ten travels to the US only one was pleasant. Speeding up the process and beeing more friendly could help a lot in reconsidering US as transit location to Mexico or for visiting my family.

  58. Justin says:

    “Flying from Australia to Europe, for example, a traveler has two options. He or she can fly westbound, via Asia (through Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong) or the Middle East (Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, etc.), or eastbound via the US West Coast (Los Angeles or San Francisco). ”

    SYD-DOH-CDG: 10.7k miles
    SYD-SIN-CDG: 10.5k miles
    SYD-LAX-CDG: 13.1k miles

    Yes, you’ll get the tailwind benefit of flying East which might shave an hour or two off the total “in air” time, but that’s almost 3000 miles (or roughly the distance between New York and Dublin). Even if LAX wasn’t a nightmare, I’d still fly through SIN/HKG/DXB/DOH. Not to mention the fact that flying Westbound I’d have the option of some truly fantastic airlines (including some which are operated as expressions of national pride instead of businesses required to generate profits).

  59. David M. says:

    Welcome to America – we hope you enjoy your visit to our airport. This is a twelwe-storey block combining classical neo-Georgian features with the efficiency of modern techniques. The passengers arrive in the entrance hall here, and are carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort and past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes, towards the rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes and the mangled flesh slurps into these…

  60. Kevin B says:

    Very sad – What annoys me about the taxes the Government levies is that it doesn’t all go to improve aviation. I’m not sure what the percentage is because I can’t find it online or at the government sites (I wonder why), but for years they used the money to balance the budget or for politicians favorite projects – I don’t think many travelers know this. I recall that when Burger King and McDonalds were using wireless headsets to take orders ATC controllers at O’Hare were still tripping over wires. My plane trip or a hamburger?

    And the government requires the largest number in a fare quote to include taxes, ostensibly to “protect” consumers who think they are getting a lower fare and are surprised how much higher the price is – sure, that’s why. When you purchase anything else, be it food, appliances, hotel, rental car you see the taxes separate as added on – I wish the airlines would focus more on this – very few travelers realize how little the airlines end up with after taxes are excluded

  61. F says:

    Wow I never knew that transitting in US is near impossible. But then again I’ve never ever stepped foot on US soil!

    I’ve always made transits in Asia – Hong Kong or Singapore and both provide seamless experience not dissimilar to what you’ve mentioned in the article Patrick. Even in Europe it’s a good experience (I’ve transitted in Frankfurt and Munich)

    Sounds like US has lots to learn!!

    • Danièle Heinen says:

      I’ll chime in with a few not alawas related comments. The idea of transit is indeed unknown in the US but also in Canada. Granted Canada might not be as much a transit destination but still a pain to go through Canada customs and immigration coming from HKG to NY through YVR. However there will be a dedicated transit passengers line.
      The very costly/ time crunch issue is the need for a stupid visa just transiting through the US not even wanting to deplane there with all the trimmings, nowadays of finger printing etc…..Long before 9/11 I had asked in JFK why the need of visa and the answer at the time was that the need to change terminals meant that one could just evaporate in the US. That goes of course with the idea that everyone is longing to move to the US…… but that is another debate. But the idea of a transit tunnel a ” sterile area” as often called was not even considered !!!! North America is the exception on that.

      A bad scenario was in 2005 a flight YVR to SYD with at the time, landing for refueling/ change of crew in Honolulu in the middle of the night. We had gone through US immigration in YVR but had to deplane, be patted down and the security staff was so rude especially to 2 elderly ladies in wheel chairs who were obviously slow to move and were required to take off their jacket and theirs shoes and were shouted at. I was appalled and nearly lost it! Keep in mind we were re boarding the same AC plane ! And at such time there was absolutely nothing open at the airport.
      On the way back, it was even worse as no pre-flight US immigration in SYD. So everybody off the flight , fingerprinted, patted, more nice ladies at the security yelling as some of you mentioned in a rather incomprehensible language, stamped except me, more or less, as most of the flight was Australians traveling to Vancouver for the Alaska cruises,and most of them having no idea of the process. Luckily Ozzies are on the visa waiver list. 2 or 3 years later that flight was made non stop YVR-SYD. Since I live on the East side, any flight to Asia/ Australia for me is through Toronto and Cathay Pacific or any other Asian airlines.

      My comment on comparing airports would be to rave about SIN, HKG, KUL, AMS and hate CDG and I have to go to France several time a year.

      Yes you have to show your passport when you transit through Europe at your first port of landing but no bother with luggage and customs. There are also separate lines EU passports/ others so it helps and the level of courtesy is ….different.

      Last I used to go to the US for both business and leisure. I restrict myself to one conference a year.
      I would have too many bad things to mention about YUL US immigration and customs, partly due to my birth place even though I have had a Canadian passport for 20 years, and ditto going by road as well especially when I am driving through with a friend carrying a British passport (so 5 $ fee and fingerprint and the I 94 form to fill and interrogation) but who speaks perfect French so more questions. For another forum

      And yes if you transit through LHR you still have to go through security again and yes agreed a pain….

  62. Roger says:

    I wish the TSA lines had a nice big sign saying “You are paying $15 for this experience” (or however much it is). Far more people would get fed up with the security theatre.

    US airlines have also been far too complicit and it hurts them financially. They consider your journey to be from when your butt hits the seat to when it leaves. But for many the journey involves car travel, tedious parking, shuttle busses, queues, queues, queues, degrading and humiliating searches, arbitrary stupid rules, audio pollution, lack of pleasant facilities for recreation, shopping or bodily functions, queues, crappy waiting areas, and queues. Then the plane bit, and something similar to the preceding when you arrive at the other end.

    I believe that is what leads to the downward pricing pressure on US tickets. No matter how good the on plane experience, the rest is awful, so why would you be prepared to pay a little more for a little better plane experience? It would have no effect on much of your overall journey.

    On a separate topic, even attitudes amongst countries vary. For example US immigration staff often seem like the belittling drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. “Who are you, why is scum like you in my wonderful country, what is wrong with you, acknowledge my power etc”. When I go to other countries the vibe is a very strong “Welcome to my country. I hope you have a fantastic time,”

    • Eirik says:

      - US immigration staff often seem like the belittling drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. When I go to other countries the vibe is a very strong “Welcome to my country. I hope you have a fantastic time,”

      I think some TSA officers have the same mentality as some cops do; you are a criminal until proven otherwise. But some have the ability to be polite at the same time. Although other countries too are aware of the terrorist threats and what not, I think fear in the US plays a bigger role than most other places and they act accordingly.

      But it also depends where you enter the US. When I arrive in New York (mostly at Newark), the process is extremely time consuming, and just like Patrick said; once you get off the plane, you better have at least 2 hours connection to be sure to make the next flight. If I arrive in Houston its not bad at all.

      I cant understand why you have to go through various check points again when you already gone through the same thing. I mean, I was cleared to enter the plane at the departure destination. What do they think happened during that flight? That I some how got my hands on a gun or a bomb all of a sudden?
      Why cant we just get off the plane and walk straight to the next one?
      Same thing with the baggage. Its already been checked and approved for safety. If I am “smuggling” some food or some other innocent stuff, it should not matter if I make it through in New York or in Houston.

      No wonder the airports are undermanned when they force you through the same lines over and over again and you have to pick up and check in your luggage several times. Half the people in those lines should not have to be there in the first place.

  63. Joe says:

    All true but Tegel in Berlin seems American in its lack of amenities and service and I have been waiting for the new airport for years

  64. Tod says:

    Patrick.
    Have you ever been to sydney airport? In Sydney the international terminal is on the opposite side of the airport to the domestic. Sometimes you have to actually get a taxi between terminals.

  65. arnold says:

    Patrick,
    I generally agree with what you said however, “in transit ” is not quite as simple as you describe. On a recent trip inbound from Colombo to LAX via Dubai, I had to have my bags screened after leaving the Colombo flight before entering the terminal. I then was re-screened ( bag search) when I entered the gate for the flight to LAX.

    • Roger says:

      That (rescreening) is because of the US! Because of the stupid liquids and similar pointless rules that the rest of the world doesn’t use, flights going to the US end up having to do another round before you get on the plane.

  66. Darren says:

    When I check in to come home at a European airport, there is usually a chuckle shared about having to recheck bags in the US – it is retarded along with those self-confession customs forms. Comparatively speaking, immigration times appear to be much longer here especially for visitors (how rude is that), the immigration staff are rude, and the airport staff treat you like cattle.

  67. emily says:

    **“Allen, Texas voted to spend $60 million on a high school football stadium. It was completed and less than 2 years later it has been condemned due to poor construction.”***

    We just found out the same about runways 25R and 25L at LAX

  68. C McLuckie says:

    I have just read this article on another web site.

    “Allen, Texas voted to spend $60 million on a high school football stadium. It was completed and less than 2 years later it has been condemned due to poor construction.”
    This says a lot about construction priorities in the USA. Has this amount ever been spent on an airport in Texas or other parts of the USA?

  69. […] THE DECLINE AND FALL OF U.S. AVIATION […]

  70. […] to think we should have some Eero Saarinen-designed masterpiece in Syracuse, but as the brilliant Patrick Smith writes at AskThePilot.com, American airports are terrible. Air travel, an American industry if there ever was one, has been […]

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  72. Randall says:

    Most of this is spot-on. However, the comment about international transit makes it sound like most airports in the world make it easy to just walk from the arriving plane to the departing gate. In truth, almost all airports require transit passengers to reclear security. However, very few force passengers to also go through immigration (China is one that does). In my experience, pretty much only Kuala Lumpur allows transit passengers to avoid re-clearing security.

  73. swatkind says:

    If people traveling from Europe to Asia, or from South America to Europe/Asia would have an easier/shorter/equal trip traveling through the U.S., why don’t they just travel through Canada if the US is such a hassle?

    Also, the thing that we tend to miss about the aviation industry in other countries is that labor costs tend to be much cheaper than the U.S.. Many other governments and industries are far less transparent, meaning we don’t know about all the subsidies provided to national flag carriers.

    Finally, airports and national airlines are used as showpieces for many countries, especially if they are developing countries. Which is why very often a country’s airports and airlines will be among the best infrastructure and industries that the nation will have. But once you venture outside these sectors the story tends to be different.

  74. John says:

    You forgot to mention Hong Kong’s airport which has been doing this since it was opened in 1998.

  75. […] the US (likely hence seaflyguy's trepidation or unfamiliarity). Slightly OT, this is one of the big pet peeves of "Ask the Pilot": […]

  76. Chris says:

    “So what I’m hearing is that US & international travelers want massive taxes levied on the entire US public (e.g. Kansas City region taxpayers) to subsidize a luxurious traveling experience for those who can afford it and to prop up businesses with inefficient business models. But let me guess: like most people who comment on aviation boards you consider yourself Libertarian.”

    Politically, as a non-American, I guess you could say I am progressive. The said, my political outlook is irrelevant.

    It’s not a “luxury for a small percentage”, a large percentage of Americans fly. In fact, the majority have at some point in their lives (look at the surveys).

    Yes, it does cost money. Pretty much any infrastructure costs money. But it also has the potential to bring business here to North America, from tourism, from foreign investment, and may even help towards building relations with other nations.

    “Here’s a hard truth: moving animal bodies from one point to another is a utilitarian, commodity business. Unless subsidized by monopoly grant (PanAm), taxes, or natural resources, it will eventually look like a US intercity bus of the 1980s (albeit with a small luxury cabin up front), because that’s the economics of the business.”

    While I don’t dispute your hard truth, what does any of that have to do with the quality of infrastructure? Regardless of whether something is utilitarian or luxurious (as you so contemptuously complain), infrastructure does have some potential to improve the incoming business.

  77. John Patterson says:

    There is no shortage of tax dollars available to upgrade our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, schools, affordable housing and even airports.
    The business of the United States is war.* We have a DD budget that is greater than the next 26 countries combined and yet each year we increase it. If any administration tries to decrease the amount of the increase it is skewered. We live in a Plutocracy with a Congress that is sold to the highest bidder. This process has been evolving for the last 40 years or so.
    It sickens me what has happened to this country and I think I could write a book but many others far smarter than I am, already have.
    * See “War is a Racket” – General Smedley Butler, USMC

  78. Jay Becker says:

    Foreign airports are a pleasure compared to what we see domestically. The lounges are more comfortable, the bathrooms are cleaner, and the security seems more professional than what TSA shows us. The worst examples are LGA and JFK. Airports rip off the public in so many ways-with all the fees on Rent-a-cars, to the shops charging exhorbitant prices for everything except newspapers. Flying used to be fun, but with the delays, crowding(due to less flights), the ways we have to take seats (elites, elite platinums, Group 1-4) it is a mess. Just dealing with the bins above the seats, and the sometimes rude flight attendants (I have written letters but just received public relations bovine excrement)is so much aggaravation, that we try not to fly that much unless necessary. Sometimes in some terminals, the air conditioning is poor-so that the Port Authority can save a few dollars, and the music that is on (who needs it in an airline terminal?) is today’s awful music that is just noise.

  79. Jorg says:

    Couldn’t agree more!!!
    I live in Hong Kong and we have one of the best airports (HKG) in the world. Efficient, short ways to all gates and clean. Our airline, Cathay Pacific CX), is one of the best airlines.
    Recently I flew several times to South America. I have chosen HKG-JFK and then to South America.
    In fact the flying time was shorter than flying via Europe.
    But all the procedures, the long queues and the bugging interrogations at immigration counters, long waiting time for the luggage, questions again from the customs officer, check in again, etc. – it is terrible and I was just transiting.
    Unfortunately I’ve always got the information that I have to fly to South America two days before. Thus all flights were full and I had to fly from JFK via Miami and then to South America.
    The AA lounge at JFK was very disappointing and after 15 hours flight from HKG, I ask for a shower before I board the next flight and the service lady just gave me a sour face.
    (I’m sorry that I landed on a Sunday, early morning, Madam and caused so much trouble but bear in mind that I paid 12.000USD for the ticket!!!)
    AA airplanes were old, the seats are worn and the flight attendant unfriendly.
    Not to mention the lounge in Miami (and on top of that you have to pay for food and drinks).
    The return flight was a disaster first grade. Delay in Miami for hours. AA staff was not helpful at all. Finally we pushed back and got parked somewhere. We were sitting in the plane for one hour at our parking position but no water was handed out. Finally the pilot announced that we burned too much fuel and we have to go back to the gate. (BRILLIANT).
    Arriving JFK with xxx hours delay, I went straight to the CX lounge, after I passed all check-in and scanning and screening procedures and I had a nice, long shower a cold beer (without paying a cent!!!). I was happy to board my CX flight back to HKG.
    I tried to count how many times I had to take of my shoes in US airports but I couldn’t remember.
    This was just an episode of a frequent traveler…
    But yes, I have seen some US airports and indeed, the infrastructure is old, the terminal buildings cannot accommodate the increasing number of passengers (last time SFO was packed with passengers) and when changing terminal building you have to go long ways, stairs, lifts, etc.
    Compared with BKK, Beijing, Seoul or even Doha just to mention a few, most of the big US airports have never seen a refurbishment.
    My recommendation: Transit via US – never / Visiting US – only direct flights (if possible).

  80. Stephen says:

    Reading some of the comments here, it occurs to me that if Mexico could get its act together and build a clean, modern international transit airport somewhere in the north of the country, it could make a killing in the transit business.

    For added security, it could be a transit-only airport in a remote location, with no access to/from Mexico itself. Logistics would be interesting, with supplies being flown in and employees air-commuting in, or perhaps living in on-site dormitories on a rotational basis, similar to oil rig workers. Or it could be situated somewhere such that supplies could be trucked in, but with no ground access by the general public.

    Or Mexico could take a page from the playbook of some of the countries discussed here and build a new transit airport on the outskirts of Mexico City to cater to the transit market. It sure seems the demand is there.

    • Eva says:

      Mexico recently announced the winning bid for a massive Mexico City airport overhaul. It will take several years to be finished, but I can see how it might become a relevant hub for Caribbean and South American traffic… assuming it happens according to plan, which might be wishful thinking.

  81. H. Coleman Norris says:

    I am an American living in Switzerland. Not only will I not fly “home” to Wisconsin on a US carrier, I have diminished my visits to my homeland to once a year, and next year plan to NOT visit Wisconsin, mostly because of the horrible hassle of getting through passport control and customs. And, unfortunately, I can attest to the reluctance of others to visit or connect through the US – I know at least a dozen people who no longer will visit the US or fly to Caribbean destinations through the US.

  82. Chuck Watson says:

    The lack of transit lounges for international passengers must cost an uncountable number of bookings. A few years ago, the president of Ecuador was almost denied transit on a trip to Europe via Miami because he did not have a current visa for entry to the USA. Needless to say, all subsequent trips have been via Madrid. Ordinary Ecuadorans cannot easily obtain USA visa, so avoid flights through it. An Ecuadoran friend of ours had business in Japan, and had to fly through Amsterdam rather than the much shorter trip through LAX.

  83. Joe Cantwell says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Great piece, thank you.

    Only point I would push back on a bit is that the US aviation industry is in bad shape due to underfunding. Customers and taxpayers have paid in…it’s just been mismanaged on a massive scale. DIA’s infamous aborted luggage handling system, DC’s MWAA rampant nepotism/cronyism hiring and contracts, PHL all of PHL), (insert your favorite examples here), etc…

    By the way, received “Cockpit Confidential” as a gift recently and am looking forward to reading your latest book.

  84. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    The passenger experience has definitely declined over the past 15 years. I fly about once a month. No matter how short the flight is within the U.S., getting to the airport, checking in, clearing security, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, and claiming luggage has become an all day affair. This ordeal is made worse by user-unfriendly airports such as LAX and IAD.

    I think you’re right, Patrick, when you say, “we’ve done it to ourselves.” Neither the skies nor the airports are very friendly places anymore whether one’s trip is a domestic or international flight.

    During my flight last week from DFW to IAD, the head flight attendant screamed at the passengers about stowing their luggage as they were boarding from the very moment they started to board (I was first on the plane, so I witnessed this). She didn’t stop screaming at us until the door was shut, and we were ready for push back.

    So, a two hour drive to the airport, fees for baggage, groped by TSA, lots of time on my hands because I had to be there so early to check my bags, then getting screamed at by the flight attendant during the entire boarding process made for a very unpleasant flight. Then to land at IAD (home of the cement barricades), an airport with which I was not familiar, was icing on the cake. It’s like being in an underground bunker of some sort — very dark, dreary, spread out all over the place, and difficult to navigate. I also enjoyed sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate for 45 minutes. Duh. Guess they didn’t know we were landing.

  85. Ian MacDonell says:

    From top to bottom, from legislative edicts to the ground crew, I find that the difference can be summed up as respect for the passenger. The foreign airlines seem to grant the passenger more respect and a better flying experience [and not coincidentally more incentive to choose their airline], while the North American airlines tend to view passengers as birds to be plucked [rhymes will be entertained]. I pity the North American airline and airport employees, who daily have to operate in such an atmosphere; whatever their initial intentions, it must be a demoralizing environment to work in, and the passengers often pay the price.

  86. Sam D says:

    Spot-on as usual Patrick. The only part that I disagree with is the taxation bit especially compared to Europe. European carriers are subject to a much higher rate of taxation overall compared with their US and Asian counterparts.

    Take, for example, my round trip ticket for BOS-IAD. Total price: $207.80 of which $34.77 was taxes/fees, 16.7% of the total. Compare that to the round trip ticket for a trip I took last year LGW-CPH. Total price: £255.90 of which £113.90 was taxes/fees, a whopping 44.5% of the total price. I understand landing fees and such vary, with London-area airports (LHR) notorious for especially high fees, but even taking that into consideration the overall tax rates are much higher.

    • Simon says:

      European airlines cheat though. Only little of what they label “taxes/fees” are actually taxes.

      The large chunk is usually a so-called “fuel surcharge”. There’s no way to get a ticket without it so why it’s considered an “extra fee” is beyond me. They also like to add “booking fees” despite the fact that you yourself had to get the ticket online and did all the work yourself like printing boarding passes, getting the bag tag, etc.

      Security fees are there, too, but not as much as in the US. Airport fees could be a tad higher. None of that is really taxes though. The actual tax is the sales tax on your ticket in Europe “VAT” that’s usually some where between 17-25% depending on country of sale. Oh and yeah, the fuel, Jet A-1 is exempt from sales tax in Europe. Go figure.

  87. Andrew says:

    Don’t forget ESTA for foreigners – in addition to all the hassle of clearing customs and immigration, a mandatory pre-travel $14 charge for the privilege, with the risk of arbitrary and unappealable rejection. It’s not much compared to the cost of the flight, but psychologically it’s a real deterrent.

    ..and that’s under visa waiver. I can’t imagine how unappealing it must be to, say, someone from Poland, who are inexplicably excluded from that list and would have to request a visa, with full attendant hassle, to get the privilege of transiting in JFK; that’s $160 plus a day to attend the embassy.

  88. David Johnson says:

    When I fly Frankfurt/O’Hare on a codeshare, I always check flight numbers to make sure I’m on Lufthansa equipment instead of United. Nicer aircraft and nicer staff.

    • And are there free drinks in Economy on LH as opposed to $7 each on UA? Am not sure about LH but on all non-US carriers I fly, free drinks in Economy is the norm…..even transAtlantic, although US Airways is now offering a free glass of wine in Economy during the meal on its US-Europe flights.

  89. Ron S. says:

    I fly worldwide many times a year and i always make it a point never to fly thru the U.S. no matter where i go. Meaning no U.S. carriers as well… Too rude and paranoid.

  90. Sheila T says:

    I was in an airport last week for the first time in over five years, to pick up someone flying in to Kansas City. All I could think of was “It wasn’t this bad in the old Soviet Union.”

    And it’s distressing to learn that things are even worse then they were the last time I flew.

  91. Srini says:

    The sentiments of the article is exactly what I felt when I traveled into and out of Honolulu International last month. The dingy brown color and dated ’70s style terminal, passenger hostile facilities, every airport employee dressed like a janitor all contributed to a depressing experience compared to Hong Kong and Seoul that I transited through to get there. In fact, the terminal looked exactly like the old terminals of those two cities that were abandoned for their swanky new facilities. Even if the U.S. does not have a very strong transit hub business case, it’s tourist attractions and it’s position as a technical and business know-how destination more than make up for it. While the U.S. was busy “spreading democracy” and fighting other peoples’ wars over the last couple of decades, the rest of the world was busy getting on with business. Sorry for the cliche, but the U.S. absolutely needs a Apollo style program for it’s infrastructure upgrade to bring it on par with the rest of the world.

  92. Karen Lane says:

    I’ll go even farther and state that I WILL NOT take a flight to Europe that forces me to connect in any U.S. airport. If I have to connect, it will be somewhere in Europe.

  93. Paul says:

    Great article, Patrick – sad and very true, and not a thing’s gonna happen to change it.

    The previous generation of American taxpayers were committed to building a world-class infrastructure for the common good, and businesses were committed to providing world-class service. The current generation of American taxpayers, brainwashed by 30+ years of politicians’ nonsense, would rather sit and whine about how they pay too much already and can’t see how spending on infrastructure will benefit them personally – except for massive amounts of spending on security kabuki designed to at least give the appearance that we’re doing something to protect the country from, well, everyone else. If a bunch of foreigners, who hate America anyway by their reasoning, are inconvenienced, who cares?

    The legacy airlines learned one thing from deregulation – passengers are cattle who will bear any humiliation for the cheapest airfare, even if the airfare really isn’t what they’ll end up paying after fees. The post-deregulation airlines managed to buck the trend for a while, but more and more their attitudes and policies seem to mirror the legacies. It’s a formula for financial disaster, but who cares – the executives ans shareholders of these companies feel that they will have taken their money and ran long before it happens.

  94. UncleStu says:

    I almost fell out my chair when I read that last paragraph.

    “Finally, you should know that the government-run Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States provides billions of dollars in below-market financing each year to carriers overseas, helping deliver hundreds of US-built aircraft at rates not available to our own airlines.”

    Welfare for those who need it is cut, while welfare for giant corporations – even foreign ones – goes on and grows.

    If that doesn’t wake Americans up to the disgusting state of affairs in our country, then nothing will. But I’m confident that we will remain docile – sheeple.

  95. Cam Lind says:

    Intresting point about travel Australia-Europe via the US. It is so off the radar, I don’t think people even see it as an option.

    I disagree that Seoul is any kind of global aviation hub. It has a nice airport but seems like a bit of abackwater with highly expensive fares to me.

  96. Alain Lajoie says:

    As a Canadian who flies to Asia every summer to visit friends, I learned four years ago, after surviving the airport hell that is Chicago O’Hare, to never transit through the US. At the same time, I also learned that service in the low-cost Asian carriers ( $36 US between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, $220 return with all the trimmings between Singapore and Bali) puts American carriers to shame. From then on, I’ve only flown Asian carriers from Toronto or Vancouver. No immigration hell and service that puts a smile on your face.

    • And yet a large and growing number of Canadians cross their border to take ‘advantage’ of lower ticket and facility prices in the US. At least compared to the rates in Canada, the American experience is a discount.

      • Alain Lajoie says:

        Flying AA from Montreal or Burlington, when the pain is roughly equivalent and where you go through US customs at the border, as opposed to the airport, I can understand going the Burlington way. Flying to Hong Kong on Cathay and already paying for premium economy, wouldn’t even consider LAX over Vancouver or Toronto.

        • Breadbaker says:

          I live in Seattle and I will never fly to the US from Canada again. Twice, once in Toronto and once in Vancouver (coming from Auckland) the US Customs, set up in Canada “for my convenience” was about three times as long as, and significantly more demeaning, than transiting the same Customs and Immigration in Sea-Tac. From now on, if I fly to somewhere in Canada, I will take the train to Vancouver, Skytrain to the airport and fly direct from there.

  97. Jim Houghton says:

    The problem with being “first” is that you end up with Version 1 of everything. Of course Dubai and Istanbul have better, smoother-operating airports — they’re practically brand-new!

    • Barfbag says:

      They did have airports before, you know.

      The brand-new airports come at huge cost. Kai Tak was a Version 1.0 airport (and then some). Chek Lap Kok is the multibillion dollar “let’s get it right this time” version. And they got it right. Really right.

      It’s a question of having the will to do these things. Many of the Asian countries have the will, and feel the need to compete with each other. And they see it as a necessary investment for their future.

      Interesting to read the comments about Aus/NZ flights transiting LAX. My mother went the Auckland-London route via LA in the 1970s. Just once. And her sole memory of the United States is the rude, shitty treatment she got at LAX while transiting a country she wasn’t even visiting or interested in visiting. Isn’t it just incredibly sad that 35 years later, that’s her only direct experience of the United States?

      My own experience was far more positive: HK to Honolulu just as SARS was fading out in Hong Kong. Friendly officials and no problems at all.

      • JK says:

        I’d be curious to know how these countries or municipalities fund their airport projects. Is the funding tax-based, or are these airports private entities with private investment funding them?

      • PolishKnight says:

        I honestly wonder about the claim that airport improvements are all so horrifically expensive. Consider the idea of a transit lounge: Choose a few adjoining terminals and reserve them for international traffic based upon projected traffic. Put up barriers between the domestic areas and setup exiting passengers for customs and passport control. Hire CBP officers for entry to the international area (should be easy since their passport credentials will be in the CPB database for exit.) How much does it cost to put up drywall and hire bus drivers?

        I suspect that this isn’t being done due to an act of political will. For some reason, perhaps because it’s always been done that way, an international transit lounge/area hasn’t been implemented ANYWHERE that I know of in the states. Perhaps some federal code that’s been hanging around for a century?

  98. callsign says:

    Until the United States stops the bickering and infighting that plagues our national mentality, and we wake up to the fact that we are competing on an economic global stage, we will not fix this issue or the myriad of other shortcomings. As a nation we are blissfully unaware on our lonely continent with two neighbors we disregard with upturned noses, while the rest of the world moves on without us. We think we are a world unto ourselves, second to none.

    For years landing from international destinations at Pan Am’s/Delta’s JFK terminal was a glaring shock to the senses. Crumbling dark brown brick walls led to hallways with dirty windows, to a 1950 era single-file escalator that descended into a subterranean pit more reminiscent of a communist holding tank than a warm welcome to America. With the “No Cameras” sign prominently displayed on the wall, the weary traveler was met by a barking agent yelling in an almost incomprehensible voice and shepherded around a dimly lit room with missing ceiling tiles and blown out light bulbs. Once out of customs, the baggage claim room was even worse, and once clear the final customs hurdle, it was into the waiting arms of unregulated car drivers ready to really “take you for a ride” still in the gloom of an underground hellhole. Unreal. It’s been a few years, for me now, so I don’t know if it’s changed much but I hear that damn escalator is almost gone.

    I am secretly hoping that Hawaiian changes the model for our Pacific route network and makes the process a little more palatable. (“our” in the sense of “America’s”).

    As Patrick says, we are light years behind the rest of the world. Our airlines are economic engines, and most importantly they represent our country around the globe, and they should be broadcasting the very best of what we have to offer, and reflect our unified national pride… unfortunately using them as a mileage marker, I fear we have little to offer anymore.

    • Jim Houghton says:

      What you say is true. Part of that is the Detroit Syndrome: “We’ve always been the best and we’re still the best no matter what evidence there may be to the contrary, so we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done, exactly the same way we’ve always done it!” As Toyota takes over the world…

      The other factor is one I mention below: we were the first to have a massive air-transport infrastructure. Thus, our infrastructure is old and outdated, incapable of handling the volume of passengers or their expectations of quality and convenience. No one wants to pay the taxes it would take to raze and rebuild, so we patch and remodel and fail to address core issues. It’s what happens to empires.

      • JK says:

        “The other factor is one I mention below: we were the first to have a massive air-transport infrastructure. Thus, our infrastructure is old and outdated, incapable of handling the volume of passengers or their expectations of quality and convenience. No one wants to pay the taxes it would take to raze and rebuild, so we patch and remodel and fail to address core issues. It’s what happens to empires.”

        The age of our infrastructure occurred to me too when reading Patrick’s piece. It’s a problem not limited to our airports either. But I wouldn’t say that “no one” wants to have taxes raised to improve our infrastructure. I would say that there are just enough anti-tax folks to make the politics of infrastructure improvement extremely difficult and generally unlikely.

  99. Tod Davis says:

    When traveling from Australia to Europe, the travel agents wont even mention the options going through the USA. They will only talk about the Asian or middle east options

  100. Mike Kennedy says:

    Patrick is preaching to the choir. The people who should be reading this are, and will probably remain clueless.

  101. john c.flynn says:

    you have said it all, all of the fools running this country are brain dead.

  102. Manoak says:

    Lots of people traveling from Australasia are entering the US at Honolulu to avoid LAX. Hawaiian Airlines has a bought a slew of new Airbus planes and added service throughout the region.

    • Henry says:

      I’m doing the same when taking my Kiwi girlfriend back to NYC for Christmas this year. No intention of letting JFK customs lines be her first impression on the US.

      Also, big props to Hawaiian Airlines for starting service from AKL to the States and FINALLY undercutting Air New Zealand (the monopolist bastards!)

  103. Mark Richards says:

    “All passengers arriving from overseas, even if they’re merely transiting to a third country, are forced to clear customs and immigration, re-check their luggage, pass through TSA screening, etc. ”

    This has no other purpose than for the US to perform a dragnet. Come through the US and be prepared for arrest if you’re wanted by the posse here, or anywhere.

    Except of course if your name is misspelled, as in Tsarnaev.

    • nicholas robinson says:

      Uh . . . shall we include China in this? On a trip from Montreal to Osaka through Shanghai. I was forced to clear Chinese customs . . . yeah, right, I REALLY want to sightsee in Shanghai — and basically immigrate to China before I was able to (luckily, had no luggage to check! That’s called FORETHOUGHT) be delayed for my flight to Osaka in a Soviet-era departure “lounge” (90% of the terminal was empty with all its lights off — I think we were the only foreign airplane that day).

      But I frequently am forced to travel from Canada through the US for a totally foreign destination, and even though I am an American citizen, I resent being FORCED to basically undergo customs and immigration to a country I have no intention of deplaning at!

      The US has it bass-ackwards and is thoroughly polluting the world of air travel with its potent heavy-handed stink.

      Let’s hark back to the Soviets and travelling through Moscow on our way somewhere else — that’s basically what every transit airport in the US has become. An interrogation center for unwilling prisoners.

  104. sPh says:

    So what I’m hearing is that US & international travelers want massive taxes levied on the entire US public (e.g. Kansas City region taxpayers) to subsidize a luxurious traveling experience for those who can afford it and to prop up businesses with inefficient business models. But let me guess: like most people who comment on aviation boards you consider yourself Libertarian.

    Here’s a hard truth: moving animal bodies from one point to another is a utilitarian, commodity business. Unless subsidized by monopoly grant (PanAm), taxes, or natural resources, it will eventually look like a US intercity bus of the 1980s (albeit with a small luxury cabin up front), because that’s the economics of the business.

    • Chad H says:

      Anyone who would describe Emirates as having an “Inefficient business model” is having a laugh. Same applies to most of the new breed of Long haul carriers.

      The facts simply do not bear out your conclusions. “New Silk Road” routes are incredibly competative, profitable, and comfortable.

  105. Karin S says:

    I can easily believe that poll you mention at the beginning of your post. I was born and raised in Europe, and know many of my friends and family members who used to visit the US regularly who don’t anymore, and all of them cite the hassle of entering the country, and the humiliating immigration process (fingerprints etc).

  106. Adam says:

    Great article and pretty much spot on. The only thing I’d take issue over is that Dubai is a good airport. It isn’t. It’s horribly inefficient – especially when you consider it was built from scratch 5 years ago.

  107. George says:

    Absolutely right! I travel from UK to and from New Zealand almost every year and would not dream of going via LAX again for the reasons you give. The last time I made a short business trip to the US, after the usual long immigration wait (in Detroit) the immigration official asked me “Couldn’t you just have called?”. I lived happily in USA for four years in the 1980s and am sad to see that the immigration and transit conditions are now so unpleasant for visitors (and maybe for citizens too).

  108. Etaoin Shrdlu says:

    Remember de-regulation? We unleashed the “unseen hand” of the market and it diddled us. Airlines began a never ending race to the bottom, and invented new ways of screwing revenue out of passengers and employees. (UAL pilots, what happened to your pensions? TWA and PanAm pilots, what happened to your airlines?)

    P.S.-Ever transit at LHR? It’s at least as much hassle as SFO.

    • Chad H says:

      Well, if you’re moving from T4 to T1, its Disembark into T4, Board Bus, get eye scanned at customs, Repass Security at T1. At least you dont have to recheck your bag.

    • PolishKnight says:

      Let’s not blame deregulation for American airlines’ and airports’ woes. Those who might think it was a crony capitalist republican move should google the terms and they will find that it was Carter who implemented them in the late 70’s! This actually broke up a lot of monopolies and opened the skies. Would you want to pay PanAm prices for tickets adjusted for inflation?

      The rotten CEO’s are sadly a function of corporate America in general. It’s insane to see CEO’s of airlines during bankruptcy hearings continuing to get million dollar packages and lifetime first class travel.

    • Roger says:

      Note that it was the removal of some regulations, not all. The US has protectionism preventing foreigners from operating airlines in the US. As with most protectionism, the shielding from reality results in worse incumbents.

  109. Andy Culley says:

    Totally agree. If Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Asiana, KAL started US domestic service I would search 100% to them. The difference between a US carrier flying internationally and a foreign carrier are night and day. I fly what should be the signature United flight Chicago to Hong Kong on a dilapidated 747 with no personal entertainment system, surly over the hill flight attendants and Greyhound bus like amenities. Did I mention that I’m 1k member of UA? Flying economy on a foreign carrier is on par with business class on a US airline. Hell just arriving into JFK airport customs…one must think we are a 3rd world country. Singapore Changi and Seoul Incheon have been open 15 years and they are still 20 years ahead of any US airport

  110. Pillai says:

    As a repeat traveler through all these segments Patrick mention, I concur. Yes, it is a pleasure to leave the dirty JFK airport behind and walk into a clean Qatar Airways plane(although Terminal 8 ain’t so bad as 4 from where Emirates fly out. Holy cow.)

    What Dubai and even the new massive Qatar Airport can do better is in friendlier immigration officials.

    But boy, the airports are fantastic. And the planes, the food, the service, even on Economy is something else. Same with Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia etc.

    Guess I have to give Turkish Airline a try next.

  111. Andre says:

    I sure hope I don’t have to fly during those events…

  112. Andre says:

    You think things are bad in the US, Patrick? Try flying here in Brazil… We’re hosting a FIFA World Cup (next year), and the Olympics in 2016. I sure ho

    • John LM says:

      Yeah Brazil is pretty bad. In Rio I think I waited in the line at passport control for about an hour and a half but that was nothing compared to the line for clearing customs. Check that, there was no line rather a snaking mess of people screaming at each other for cutting or pushing. I soon figured out that 5 or 6 international flights landed within minutes of each other all funneling into the same cramped terminal. It was worth it though, I love Brazil. I’d brave that any time to go back and visit again.

  113. Patrick Wright says:

    Patrick, another great essay and spot on, but you left out one thing. In my experience LAX has the most hostile employees of any major US airport. This ranges from parking lot attendants to shuttle bus drivers to terminal employees. The last time I arrived at LAX from overseas I had to wait in those three lines you mentioned. While waiting in line, someone in a uniform was shouting into a microphone with an accent / dialect of English that was almost incomprehensible to me and I’m a native speaker. The asian travellers near me were totally bewildered and struggling to understand what was being shouted at them.

    • Breadbaker says:

      I couldn’t agree more about LAX. When we arrived there in transit from Seattle to Sydney, there was absolutely no information about what terminal we were supposed to go to and when we found a shuttle the driver rudely told us we were going the wrong way. We had to lug our carry-on baggage in the heat to the other terminal, which didn’t have a single sign telling us that Qantas was in it, and then went through security only to find that all the food was on the other side of security.

      • Randall says:

        Most US airports are not built for transit, especially international transit, they are built only for arrival and departure. Departure is usually lousy thanks to security procedures.
        We found O’Hare not bad for domestic transit a few years ago; Newark was pretty good a long time ago; most others are bad or unmemorable. JFK is the worst for everything.

  114. Ross Aimer says:

    Right on target, Sir!
    Arrogance and ignorance are human’s greatest deficits.
    While we constantly beat our chests and declare ourselves the greatest in this and biggest of
    that, our Commercial Aviation is falling dangerously behind most other smaller nations.
    When was the last time we built an airport from scratch?
    Where TSA, Customs and Immigration provide many of us with this false sense of security, they have turned our crumbling airports into a prison like atmosphere.
    As our airline management reward themselves with obscene salaries, bonuses and golden parachutes (this time truly highest in the world), their services remind us of an old Punjabi rail road or the Out Back sheep transport!

    Captain Ross Aimer
    (UAL Ret.)
    CEO
    Aero Consulting Experts

  115. Evan says:

    I disagree with the U.S. falling behind other countries as the “global aviation leader”. How many other countries can boast the staggering amount of public use airports and air traffic control infrastructure the U.S. can? How many other countries are developing new aviation technology on par with the U.S.? While commercial flying MAY be more of a hassle in the U.S. (though I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that, after my experience recently flying El Al) , our military and general aviation industries far surpass anywhere else in the world.

    • Chad H says:

      @ Evan

      My answer to your questions would be Europe, Europe, and Europe.

      Beyond Europe, Bombardier/Embraer is nipping on Airbus/Boeing heels, as are China’s home grown manufacturers… May not take too long before they’re ready to compete at a Boeing level too.

      Not to mention the upcoming Single European Sky, etc.

    • Kathy says:

      Israeli security may be worse than the TSA, although I hadn’t heard it went in for groping passengers, but it’s the only country that is. Aside from flights back to the US, when you are likely to run into US-mandated security theater, dealing with security in other countries is a welcome change. So are the airports. I remember one trip in particular, in 2002, when I flew Raleigh-Durham to La Guardia and Newark to Dubai to Kuala Lumpur. It was an embarassment to see how much newer, cleaner, and user-friendly the foreign airports were. RDU has improved a good bit since then, but it’s still not in the same class.

      There is no excuse for the stupidity of requiring transit passengers to have visas and actually enter the country.

      • Fred says:

        Get real..youre talking airports in countries with so much surplus and outrageous wealth that they cannot be compared to public

        • Patrick says:

          Like where? I’ll give you Dubai, where the airport is owned and run by the government, but Germany? Canada? It’s mostly the rules and protocols that kill us, and the fact that we live in a country where nobody wants to pay for anything. Our airports are very user-unfriendly. You hardly need “outrageous wealth” to fix that.

      • Gideon Y says:

        Israel security may be intrusive (has not been to me — but then I’m Israeli), but it is NOT a TSA-style security theater

  116. David says:

    I live in Kansas City, MO and there is a furious debate about whether the City should spend $1.2 billion dollars on a new terminal. Many think the City can raise airport fees, landing fees, sales taxes etc. to pay for a new terminal with no repurcussions. They fail to realize that airlines can and will move to lower cost cities if costs get out of hand.

    Kansas City already taxes its hotels and rental cars at a very high rate to pay for its new downtown arena.

    http://www.savekci.org

    • Marty U. says:

      Interesting. Just look to San Jose (SJC) for an interesting lesson. Ironically, they spent ~1.2B to revitalize their terminals (frankly, I found the ’50s-era walk-up stairs a quaint throwback), then the economy turned sour, business travelers started using the Internet and San Francisco, up the peninsula, did a better job of attracting airlines with compelling routes and fares.

      SJC is a thoroughly modern, brand-new and relatively unused airport.

      I’d argue the $billion+ would have been better spent in other ways. It doesn’t seem to be benefiting San Jose nor Silicon Valley proper.

      Regards,
      Marty

      • David T. says:

        SJC is *not* a “thoroughly modern, brand-new and relatively unused airport”. I have flown coast-to-coast from the SF Bay Area to the east coast on business at least twice a month for the past 8 years. Until recently selling my house, I lived 7 miles from SJC.

        And drove to OAK for most of those flights to avoid SJC.

        The wonderful, shiny new Terminal B is a joke. Supposedly, the design is “evocative of an aircraft fuselage”. What that means to the passenger is that security and baggage claim are at one end, and you have a loooooong walk if your gate is at the other end. With no slideways/etc. to help you.

        OAK is far better. Yes, it’s old. Yes, it’s shabby. But it’s way more efficient and quick in & out than SJC.

      • Susan says:

        I don’t believe in patronizing businesses that allow such abuses and such an incredible waste of taxpayer funds. (Though I realize some people have to travel for their careers and they can’t avoid it.)

        There were over 5500 comments submitted on the TSA scanners at regulation.gov, and they were overwhelmingly negative on TSA.

        I haven’t bothered submitting any complaint to TSA because I don’t believe in going to the airport and giving the people there – airlines or TSA – a reason to show up for work. Even if I did fly, I would probably file a complaint if TSA were overly invasive but I would do only for the record – not because anything will be done about it. It’s part of TSA’s job description to listen to the whining. TSA keeps spinning its propaganda and Congress continues to fund it. And people keep voting for the politicians that fund this agency. I don’t do that either.

        If people keep wanting to keep flying and keep voting for the politicians that allow this agency to exist, that’s their problem. I got off that merry go round years ago.

  117. Allan Elkowitz says:

    I just returned to Houston from a vacation trip to Russia. I made sure to book only on non-domestic airlines for all of the reasons listed in Patrick’s essay.

  118. Marco says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Taking an airplane is US is a terrible experience. Even the US carriers lounges are awful!