The Decline and Fall of U.S. Aviation

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

In a CNN poll of 1,200 overseas business travelers who have visited the United States, a full twenty percent of them said they would not visit the United States again due to onerous entry procedures at airports, including long processing lines. Forty-three percent said they would discourage others from visiting the United States.

Separately, in the latest copy of Air Line Pilot magazine, US 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.

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 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 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, and so forth.  The government of the UAE saw this opportunity years ago, and began to invest accordingly. Today, Dubai airport is one of the world’s busiest, and its airline, Emirates, is now the world’s third-largest in terms of capacity. 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 poised to become a similar mega-hub. Its hometown carrier, Turkish Airline, in addition to winning numerous service awards, now flies to more countries (94) 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 US aviation sector to have fallen so far. We’ve done it to ourselves through shortsightedness, underfunding, and flyer-unfriendly policies.  Compare for a minute our air travel infrastructure to that of, say, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea or Germany.  It’s not even close.  Our airports are substandard across a number of fronts; our air traffic control system is underfunded; Customs and Border Protection facilities are understaffed; airline passengers are groped, taxed, and hassled, to the point where, if that CNN poll is to be believed, millions of them will refuse to visit the country. The 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.

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 patronizing US airports and US carriers — if only we weren’t driving them away. Traveling between Australia and Europe, for example, or between Asia and South America, the US 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. American airports simply do not recognize the “in transit” concept. 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. It’s an enormous hassle that you don’t find in most places overseas, where transit passengers walk from one gate to the next with a minimum of fuss.

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 (via Los Angeles or San Francisco). Even though the distance and 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 or SFO on the other hand, a passenger 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, dirty, claustrophobic terminal to the correct 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. Heaven help the poor slob who tries connecting at JFK, which is broken up into eight completely separate terminals. In addition to each of the hassles just mentioned, switching between airlines requires you to leave the building completely and catch a train.

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 the 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. And now there’s a proposal to double the security taxes.

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. For 2012 the total was $11 billion in funding for the export of 154 aircraft to 21 countries. This is one of the reasons Persian Gulf carriers such as Emirates and Etihad Airways have been able to expand so rapidly. US taxpayers are in fact subsidizing the growth of carriers that compete directly with our own. Ex-Im’s assistance is helpful to Boeing, perhaps, but it gives foreign carriers a strong competitive advantage and undermines the health of the US airline industry.




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75 Responses to “The Decline and Fall of U.S. Aviation”
  1. Marco says:

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.


  4. 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.

  5. 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.)
    Aero Consulting Experts

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. Andre says:

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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).

  13. 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.

  14. 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).

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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!)

  18. john c.flynn says:

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

  19. Mike Kennedy says:

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

  20. 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

  21. 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.

  22. 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?

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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).

  41. 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.

  42. 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

  43. 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.

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

  45. John says:

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

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

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


  51. 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?

  52. 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

  53. 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.