Another traveler’s tale

In response to “U.S. airports versus Asian airports,” David M. writes:

I travel extensively in the U.S. When I travel on business I have such things as a light meter, electronic tape measure, a device that helps identify ballast types in light fixtures, and several other tools. Add to this my having two titanium knee joints and a CPAP machine and things become interesting to say the least. I’ve never been held for questioning, but clearing security is always a dragged-out process. Starting a few years ago, they started doing bench inspections of my CPAP machine rather than just letting it pass through the scanner. Now, I just take the weight penalty and pack it in my checked bag.

The behavior of the TSA personnel has varied from very kind and understanding in Nashville TN, to rude and attitudinal at Detroit, to the behavior shown by prison camp train platform guards in Los Angeles.

My international experience is limited, but clearing customs and immigration in Thailand is generally three to five minutes maximum. Los Angeles, it takes two to three hours, depending on the backlog at the entry desks, whether or not the luggage conveyors are broken again, and the “coral” at baggage inspection.

My limit on airport indignities used to be trips of 400 miles or more—meaning that if my destination was fewer than 400 miles away, I would drive. It reached 500 after the knee replacements, and is well on its way to 600.

- end of initial entry -

An Indian living in the West writes:

The basic problem is that the U.S. Government seems to think that there is no security threat or problem which cannot be cured by an avalanche of rules and regulations. As an example, Obama’s recent legislation to “cure” the ills of the financial system is 2000 pages long.

Now speaking of immigration, before coming to the U.S., I had to fill out online forms in advance. These immigration forms contained a string of bizarre and stupid questions, such as: have you ever co-operated with the Nazi regime or assisted that regime in carrying out genocide? This is ever better: have you ever carried out a terrorist act or co-operated with Al Qaeda?

After answering in the negative to all of those questions online, one lands at an American airport and finds that the same questions have to be answered again in writing. Having done so, one gets to the immigration counter where the questions are verbally repeated by the interviewer. But until you receive the privilege of being asked those questions, you stand and wait for an inordinately long time in a queue while the large large TV screens blare out Diversity 101. I guess the point is that if an American airport takes 40 times as long as a Japanese airport to let you through immigration, it is a privilege given the amount of diversity America has (and Japan pathetically does not!).

What is interesting is also how the immigration officers are carefully chosen to represent as much diversity as possible. I also found them to be quite rude in a way which was not really necessary. In East Asia, the process seems quite business-like. The officials at the counter are not just simply carrying out a governmental function but are also representing their country before foreign visitors—businessmen, dignitaries, tourists, casual visitors. I can only say that I came off deeply impressed by both Japan and South Korea. There was a distinct lack of nonsense and a business-like efficiency that I have come to admire greatly.

America has become all about making a political statement about diversity and equality. And no amount of either is ever enough.

Karl D. writes:

I can relate to David M.’s remarks regarding Detroit. I am traveling right now and I had a layover in Detroit. As soon as I exited the plane into the airport terminal the attitude of the staff began and was palpable. Lots of eye rolling and sucking of teeth. The way they were acting one would think they were being held against their will? I will give you one guess as to the race of the majority of the employees? But then again this is not just a Detroit thing. I see this same type of behavior from black employees everywhere. On the phone, in person, you name it. Having a job that is almost impossible to be fired from is not good enough I suppose? One would think in this economy that having a job would be a good thing? But to be honest I have seen this attitude not just from black’s but younger white people as well. They act as if the work were totally beneath them and that they should be millionaires merely for being them. But with blacks it seems almost endemic.

On a separate note. Something I have noticed about liberals. They assume everyone else is a liberal just like them. I met a woman during my travels and struck up a conversation. We were discussing the city we were in and she commented to me that It is still “pretty backwards.” When I asked what she was talking about she said, “You know? It is still pretty conservative and right wing. But it is getting better as is the rest of the state.” I told her she was barking up the wrong tree as I was a conservative. She looked at me almost as if I were a bug. Really she said? I said jokingly that maybe there should be a secret liberal handshake to avoid awkward situations like this. That went over like a lead balloon and the conversation ended. To be honest I don’t even think she got the joke. I don’t know what she thought a conservative should look like? Or are liberals so delusional that they think that it is only natural that everyone they meet would be a liberal? How could it be otherwise?

LA to David M.:
What is a CPAP machine?

David M. replies:

CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. The machine, combined with either a full mask, or, in my case, a nose pillow harness, gently force air into the breathing passages for those of us who are afflicted with a delightful condition called Sleep Apnea (SA). If you’re not familiar with it, SA is a condition where the palate tends to shut during sleep, closing off air to the lungs. The brain detects the lowering of oxygen, the body “wakes up” briefly, breathing resumes, then the whole cycle starts again. SA can, and has, led to folks having strokes.

The CPAP device keeps the palate more or less open, and so one can get a night’s sleep.

If you have ever been in a room with someone who has this, you will hear them stop their rhythmical breathing, snort a bit, then resume breathing until the same thing happens again. The person with SA then spends his waking hours with a lot of fatigue. SA hits a lot of folks. Being overweight is a cause, but even slim folks can have it.

It is my lot to travel with a machine. They run on electricity, and have water reservoirs for adding moisture to the air being run through the device. Fopr some reason, TSA sees these as some sort of device that needs to be hand-screened.

Hannon writes:

For me the worst of customs reception in the U.S. is the attitude of the workers, who are ostensibly paid to serve the public as well as protect the country. I think most flyers can withstand delays and rote procedures, but a reliably rotten attitude from officious peons is over the line.

It seems surprising that the system is federalized yet the management from place to place seems to be all over the board. Too often I have encountered officials who are, as others have remarked, insolent or contemptuous for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It is as if they get their jollies by letting you know that they can ruin your life, or at least your whole day, if they wanted to. “Step this way, please.” As long as you are on their sovereign air terminal turf, you had better not cop an attitude or get out of line or you’ve had it, buster. They can do this by facial expression, tone of voice, actual language or physical gestures, or all of the above.

It is as if airport officials in the U.S. are straining to appear serious and stern but they don’t know about what, so it becomes personal. In contrast, I have found that their counterparts in London make a point to be civil and at the same time they are also extremely serious, like they all have advanced degrees in forensic psychology. The very alert way they look you in the eye says they are trying to size you up, and to get a certain response, but it is obvious that this is in the line of duty of protecting their country. Too often in the U.S. they just seem to enjoy being jerks behind badges.

Los Angeles is the worst I have experienced, both in normal transit and in some special services. If that was all I had to go on to assess our federal workforce I think I’d move to Canada.

James P. writes:

Last week I had a trip from Dulles to LAX and back. At Dulles, I was singled out for “special treatment” at security, along with two other obviously dangerous people (an Asian couple in their 60s). As we stood there in the glass box, another passenger who was getting his stuff from the conveyor belt dumped my laptop out of its tray, so I banged on the glass and demanded that the security guy make sure it got put back. Naturally, they thought my attitude was the problem, and I was rebuked for making a scene. What was I supposed to do, have them paged? Then they patted me down—which caused me cynical amusement, since it was 90 degrees out and I was wearing shorts and a polo shirt, with few places to hide forbidden objects. Then, they decided to send my belt and wallet through the x-ray machine by themselves—this, mind you, after they’d already been through the metal detector when they were on my person. My thought was that if there is a non-metallic object that fits in a wallet or a belt and is capable of destroying an aircraft, I’d like to know what it is, but why they couldn’t just look in my wallet and see it had nothing but money and credit cards was a complete mystery. You can imagine how happy I was watching some TSA idiot walking off with my wallet. Meanwhile, they swabbed all my belongings, and at last the absurd, time-wasting charade was over. Almost all the employees were black—and some were wearing Muslim headscarves—and while they were pleasant enough, I had serious doubts about their competence, as I always do. They are clearly just going through the motions. After all that stupidity, I got to LA and heard about those clowns on the flight from Chicago to Amsterdam, and I thought TSA in Chicago must have been busy pestering someone like me while those guys got waved through without a hitch. On the return trip, I was thankfully not singled out again, but the line was even more horrendously long than usual.

September 5

Paul C. writes from Bangkok

I haven’t emailed you in some time, but this subject finally motivated me. One of the reasons I haven’t commented on your blog is that a few months ago I moved to Bangkok. I am, therefore, in and out of Suvarnabhumi all the time and frequently go through Tokyo Narita. David M. is correct; you pass through Thai customs fairly easily, except if you get caught in a long line leaving. And Narita churns through immense lines like water through a fire hose. Asian efficiency—even Thai efficiency—puts almost every airport in America to shame. But it’s the U.S. immigration rules and agents that make things so absurd, in comparison to Asia. My Thai wife, a factory manager making over 3 million baht per year, who speaks Thai, Lao, Chinese, English, and some Japanese, with a degree in accounting, has been treated like a potential terrorist and would-be welfare cheat, just for asking for a tourist visa. The hoops she must jump through and the humiliations are outrageous, especially when considering the hordes of sub 85 IQ Mexicans pouring across the border and being given the key to every American city they land in and taxpayers’ subsidized services. In comparison, it took me less than three hours to visit both the Ministry of Labor for my Thai work permit and then on to immigration for my new visa.

But back to travelling. There is an even bigger scandal, in my opinion. And it concerns the difference in the treatment of passengers—by the very same airlines—in the U.S. compared to throughout Asia, particularly Delta and American. In America, of course, you get flight attendants who are verging on being elderly and who can barely do their jobs. And the aircraft are dirtier in the U.S., while you can’t get newspapers, cushions, or blankets on American flights—at least not without paying for them. Other differences: $10 sandwiches versus still standard cuisine and silverware in Asia; wine served up in milk cartons versus bottles in Asia; unsmiling, unhappy flight crew versus smiles, politeness, and concern for service. Flying from DFW to LA on AA and then transferring to Royal Thai makes going through the awfulness of LAX palatable.

September 5

Richard P. writes:

I have an incident to add to the TSA list. Back in June I was catching a flight to Asia from the Dallas Fort Worth airport. After I passed through the metal detector (which did not sound any alarm) the TSA officer said “You’ve been selected for special screening. I need you to step into this booth.” and pointed me toward their new Millimeter Wave scanner It’s the new scanner that can take a nude picture of you through your clothes.

I laughed and said “I ain’t getting in that thing,” but I was polite about it. The TSA agent yelled “We’ve got someone opting out! We’ve got someone opting out! This guy is opting out! I need a male assist!” The assist officer was only a few feet away so there was no need to shout, especially three times. But he was facing the passengers behind me when he yelled it. It was for their benefit.

The assist officer took me to an area just past the metal detectors. In full view of everyone he spent a solid ten minutes doing his so-called “pat down.” He placed his hands inside my pants and ran them all the way around to “check my waistband.” He felt my crotch, rolled up my pants legs and rolled down my socks, ran his hands under my shirt, etc. The whole time I was standing in front of the other passengers with my arms outstretched. They could have taken me off to the side behind a privacy screen, but they didn’t.

I stuck around for a few minutes past security to watch. They picked two more people for MW scans—both middle-aged white males. While I was watching, a couple of other passengers approached me and said, “They sure don’t like it when you refuse the scanner, do they?” The whole thing was a show. They were trying to send a message. This is what happens when you refuse the MW scanner. Message sent.

I was meeting up with a colleague in the business class lounge. He is also a 40-something white man. I told him the story and he said, “Yeah, they flagged me too but I just went through the scanner.” I didn’t really hassle him about it, but I think we need a lot more people “opting out.” It’s a lesson most people learn as kids. Bullying is only effective as long as you submit.

Mr. Tall writes:

I’ve been motivated to write in regard to your comparative-flying-experiences thread.

I could not agree more. I’ve lived in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years, and my family and I travel quite a bit, so over the years we’ve been through most of the major east and SE Asian airports: Tokyo, Osaka, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and of course Hong Kong, whose Hong Kong International Airport I believe is consistently the world’s best going away, no matter what the current rankings may say (I think they churn them a bit just to avoid boredom).

Even many of the regional Asian airports are quite good: for example, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and some of the other provincial cities in China now have at least decent, efficient airports (this was often not the case even a decade ago).

What are the salient differences I’ve noticed over the years?

1. Time. Even if you land at a distant gate at HKIA, it’s highly unlikely that you will be still be in the airport 45 minutes later unless you choose to be. Immigration for residents usually takes 1-5 minutes (it’s likely to take a bit longer if you’re going through the foreign passport lines), and baggage is sometimes already on the carousel when you clear immigration (it can make it there just in the 15 minutes it often takes you to get from your gate to the immigration hall; it’s a big airport). We just returned from a short trip to Kuala Lumpur last week (another fine airport, BTW), and we were in a taxi and on our way home within about 25 minutes of landing. On a particularly good day it might be 15-20 minutes. And remember, this is an enormous airport in which all flights are international, and hence involve immigration and customs procedures. Checking in rarely takes more than 15-20 minutes (check-in lines, especially for the Asian airlines, are extremely well-managed). Security and immigration take maybe 10-15 minutes, so we often don’t even get to the airport more than 1.5 hours before our flights. I could not conceive of daring to think about leaving that little time for an international check-in at a major U.S. airport. And as for getting out of U.S. airports—I was staggered on a recent trip to the states by how even the smallest airports seem to take at least 30-40 minutes (and sometimes more) just to get any luggage out onto the carousels. When there’s only one flight that’s landed in the past hour, how can that possibly be?

2. Cleanliness. HKIA and most of the major Asian airports are clean, bright, well-maintained and simply feel like pleasant spaces to be present in. Tokyo Narita used to be awful, mostly due to overcrowding, but has been renovated and is now up to standard, even though it shares many of the characteristics of the older, now-overburdened U.S. airports. Speaking of which, contrast LAX or O’Hare or (shudder) JFK, which are shabby, dark, dirty and crowded in badly-handled ways. I think this is a deeply underestimated aspect of air travel experiences: the likelihood of having a temper tantrum or other emotional blowout seems to me far more likely when you’re in a space that is whispering “stress” to you in so many subtle but real ways.

3. Staff attitude. I won’t add much here, since this aspect has been so covered so well in other comments. I’ll just highlight one difference I’ve noticed over the years. The difference in the way you’re treated is not just between the USA and Asia; you also see it, for example, when flying to Australia. Western staff (just a proportion; many are very nice) seem to have a need to assert their individuality in every encounter they have with passengers. They need you to notice them, to give them some kind of acknowledgement or indication of deference or reassurance that, hey, they’re just as good as you are, even though they’re stuck doing this lousy job in a cheap tight uniform. The thing is, when you’ve just come off a 15-hour flight in economy class with a cranky kid, it’s pretty hard to gin up a sweet smile and metaphorical hug of mutual worthiness for the agent patting you down. In Asia (despite the reputation for petty bureaucracy, which is true in many ways) you don’t get this expectation in airport encounters. Staff are impersonal in a good way, frankly. I’ve got nothing against being pleasant to the staff I encounter when traveling—I try hard to be personable, and indeed it goes a long way toward smoothing your trip in most places—but there are times when it’s just too much to expect.

So, happy flying, fellow Americans—I’m already dreading the hours I’ll spend in the airports on my next trip home.

LA writes:

It seems no one has mentioned a reason for the lack of hassles in East Asian airports: East Asian countries are not being targeted by Islamic terrorists, at least not to the degree the West is.

September 6

Mr. Tall writes:

Just a follow-up to your comment on the lack of terrorist threats in
East Asia: perhaps this is true to some extent, but don’t forget that
one of the most heinous attacks in recent years was perpetrated in Bali,
and that several Asian countries (China, the Philippines, Thailand,
etc.) also have notable terrorism problems with indigenous groups that
have links to international terrorist organizations. So I don’t think
this goes too far in letting western airport security operations off the
hook for being so ridiculously oppressive.

An Indian living in the West writes:

You wrote:

“It seems no one has mentioned a reason for the lack of hassles in East Asian airports: East Asian countries are not being targeted by Islamic terrorists, at least not to the degree the West is.”

The worst experiences in the U.S. seem to be upon arrival after a flight, in getting through immigration and getting your luggage—when you’re not going to blow up a plane. So Im not convinced by this reasoning.

It is not only in airports or airlines where East Asia has shown itself to be much more competent than the U.S. One can now list a whole number of industries that have disappeared from America for a verity of reasons: anti-discrimination suits (sexual and racial), class action suits, the fear of American juries handing out enormous sums of money in damages, high taxes etc..

The old distinctions between what is Third World and First World are changing as many parts of the West are becoming Third World in some respects while many parts of what used to be the Third World are now effectively First World.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 04, 2010 07:00 PM | Send

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