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US airports: ‘menacing, cramped and devoid of humanity’

US airports: 'menacing, cramped and devoid of humanity'

‘No country demand anything like the same assurances as the USA immigration authorities’ Photo: GETTY

Having recently returned from the US, I feel obliged to offer a few thoughts
about American transport. Because – certainly at Los Angeles and New York –
something has gone very badly wrong. A lot of people complain about Heathrow
and Gatwick but the truth is that we British have quietly set about moving
air travel into the twenty-first century while across the Atlantic they
almost seem to be challenging us not to come.

I’m not the only one complaining. At the last election, Senator Joe Biden
compared American airports, unfavourably, with Chinese ones, saying (of
LaGuardia in New York): “It feels like it’s in some third world country.”
This year, The Economist magazine examined one million flights and concluded
that US airports can be summed up as: “soggy pizzas, surly security staff
and endless queues.” And last
week Barack Obama ordered members of his cabinet to deliver a comprehensive
plan to help create a “postive first impression” for international

Speaking from my own recent experiences, I can only agree. It can now take an
hour, sometimes two, to move through the passport control at JFK. A
Disney-style queue (or should I say “line”) snakes back and forth to a row
of cubicles, half of which are normally empty, and the border guards don’t
seem to be in any particular hurry. On bad days, I’ve waited another hour to
get through customs. And don’t believe that’s the end of it. The taxi system
at JFK is unbelievably poor. The last time I was there, I was told it would
be a 50-minute wait in yet another Disney line so took the airbus to Jamaica
Station and travelled in on the E line…fine unless you have heavy luggage as
most stations have no escalators or lifts back up to the street.

The arrivals hall itself is drab, devoid of humanity, and your six hours in
the air, with jet-lag already fogging your mind, only makes it worse. And
what exactly is it with all this security? I can’t think of another country
in the world that demands so much of its visitors. You start with the
Electronic System for Travel Authorisation or ESTA (cost $14) which as its
name suggests, gives you the right to travel to America but not necessarily
to enter it. At the border, you will may well be interrogated before you are
photographed and finger-printed, pressing your hand onto a screen that
serves as a modern-day bible, swearing you are not a terrorist.

It strikes me that a timorous quality has entered the American psyche since
9/11. Of course, the horror of that day still resonates and it must never
happen again. But we had 7/7. Spain had the Madrid train bombings. Russia
was repeatedly attacked before the Sochi Olympics. None of these countries
demand anything like the same assurances as the USA immigration authorities.

And this is what I don’t understand. It is impossible to board a plane in the
UK without providing ID. There are then at least six hours during which you
are trapped. Why is it not possible, using modern technology, to check the
identity and integrity of every passenger while they are in the air? And
when you think about it, what use are all these fingerprints anyway? If you
have no criminal record your fingerprints will tell the authorities
precisely nothing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t intend to
commit a crime.

‘It can now take an hour, sometimes two, to move through the passport control
at JFK’ (Photo: Getty)

Leaving America is almost as bad as arriving. Unlike, for example, Gatwick,
which now has a state-of-the-art security system with pleasant, helpful
staff who make the whole process of searching you and your luggage as fast
and as pain-free as possible, LA and New York security is slow, cramped and
ever so slightly menacing. The Americans do not seem to go for duty-free
shopping, certainly not on the scale of we Brits. Hudson News, with its
feeble selection of books, tacky gifts and T-shirts, must be one of the most
dispiriting chains in the world. And food? UK airports now offer Pret,
Carluccio, Gordon Ramsay, Costa and even the Caviar House. At LA’s domestic
terminal we joined a forty-minute line to get into the one, tired Starbucks
and the international terminal is not a lot better.

Returning to Heathrow, I made it from the air tunnel to the train in just nine
minutes, passing through the electronic passport control and snatching my
cases off the carousel with barely any wait at all. The Heathrow Express may
not be cheap but it’s fast and efficient and even Paddington Station has
been given a facelift. It strikes me that airports say a lot about a
country’s attitude and the way it presents itself to the rest of the world
and the Americans really need to think again.
Travellers faced with drawn out and often degrading security checks at
Britain’s airports are beginning to question the effectiveness of the
measures in place. As part of Telegraph Travel’s Fair Deal for Travellers
campaign, Nigel Richardson outlines some demands for some common sense

(via Telegraph)