A Response to the Telegraph’s Negative U.S. Airport Review


In case you missed it, the UK Telegraph published an opinion piece by Anthony Horowitz titled U.S. Airports: ‘menacing, cramped and devoid of humanity. You don’t have to read the whole thing to get his opinion. Ouch.

You couldn’t really call this a rebuttal. Much of what he says about US airports rings true. But I only half agree. As someone whose life currently revolves around going into the UK’s borders regularly, this foreigner’s experiences in the rest of the world – and the UK in particular – are not quite as flawless as his own.

But let’s start with the US. Yes, our airports generally seem to be stuck decades behind. It sounded harsh when Joe Biden mentioned LGA and “third world” in the same sentence, but I’d had the same thought before. Flying in and out of NYC is a particular disappointment given that it’s New York freaking City! You’d expect something superlative to welcome visitors to this member of the cosmopolitan A-list.

New York is probably the worst disappointment, but the general standard is low and the paucity of food and Duty Free offerings across the system is particularly baffling. If the US is good at one thing it’s product choice and selling! What’s going on behind airport scenes that stops us from capitalizing on masses of bored, hungry, captive customers?! I am well and truly stumped.

Yet, I do have a niggle with Mr. Horowitz’s exuberant view of entering the UK. The infrastructure is envied, yes! There is definitely a lot to buy at their airports! But other parts of his comparison get a bit conflated and over-rosy, no? I have waited in plenty of killer immigration lines in the UK. Even the Fast Track lane has taken me an hour on multiple occasions. On my last entry, there were only about 20 people in front of me. I was excited! But it still took forever because only one booth was open. There were plenty of officers around. Just none of them accepting passengers.

The UK has some special arrival inefficiencies, too, like how immigration casts permanent residents – who can live, work and pay taxes here [ahem!] and who have biometric permits that could technically work in the automatic-reader gates – in with random tourists for processing. Even if the European line has zero passengers and eight agents (some of whom were once literally filing their fingernails) and we are told “They can process residents if they want, why don’t you go ask?” – trust me, never go ask! They will surely send you back (to the back!) of the heaving tourist line, and do so with a sneer.

I’m not intending to complain. It’s fine. I’m just saying the US doesn’t have the market on gruff immigration officers. The UK can also do intimidating and unfriendly. In my worst example, during my chemotherapy days, I came by train from Belgium to visit my in-laws. The officers questioned me at length and were sarcastic and hostile to my answers. Ultimately, I had to pull off my scarf to display my bald head to “prove” my situation (rReally, it should have been obvious with the scarf, never mind my paperwork. And yes, I enjoyed their flustered faces!). But I don’t blame Mr. Horowitz for not seeing it. When I am with my husband, it’s totally different. Perhaps kind of like how I usually have perfectly pleasant immigration officers in the US, yet know that is not everyone’s experience.

I also give the UK that their TSA-equivalent is usually nice to passengers, but that does not hold true for foreign crew members (at least, North American ones), with whom they have a sometimes openly hostile relationship. I could fill a whole column with incidents, but suffice it to say that many flight attendants refuse to work London trips simply due to the drama of clearingLHR security. No exaggeration.

So I agree with the Telegraph that entering many US airports can feel like we’ve traveled in a time machine towards the wrong era (there is some good news on that front), but let’s not get carried away and confuse what are actual problems to fix and what are just universal bureaucratic grinds. Not all of the travel annoyances Mr. Horowitz describes are in the same vein, or even uniquely American, in my experience.

What does your travel experience say? Are we unique when it comes to brusque security and immigration personnel? If so, why might that be?

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Comments (Showing 4 of 4)

  • BearX220 at 4:33pm June 03, 2014

    It’s impossible to tell if the Telegraph writer’s screed is directed against American airport infrastructure / architecture or American security and immigration procedures. He swerves back and forth between attacking one or the other.

    If he is basically upset with TSA and immigration protocols in this country, he’s got a point. (Although the analogous UK systems can be as frustrating.) The US is not unique when it comes to stupid, brusque security — a lot of third-world countries match us — but we have achieved a sad nadir among developed countries when it comes to abusing innocent travelers with deranged, stressful, Kafkaesque procedures.

    If he is making fun of airport infrastructure, he is choosing his targets carefully. LGA and JFK are black marks, yes, but we also have DEN, DTW, and the newer parts of SFO which are superb. As a big country with dozens of major airports we can’t upgrade everything at once. (And parts of LHR are pretty dodgy — T4 has grown shopworn and sad in its 30-year working life, as any terminal would.)

  • fleur_de_lys at 8:48pm June 03, 2014

    Isn’t that the truth. Having just come through LHR again, I can agree with the above. Fast track immigration is anything but fast. Many times I should have entered the regular line and would have exited quicker. Fast track seems to have 1 or 2 officers. Agreed they can be just as surly as the US immigration officers. My experience with security is no better or worse than ours. Regarding terminals- yes T5 is nice but tranferring from one to the other is a pain in the butt I agree that many US airports are a disgrace, particularly JFK. In fairness the UK really only has a few large airports so it shouldn’t that hard to make it nice. Look at how many large, major airports the US has in comparison. Costs money to fix all this up and these airports were designed long before the problems that 9/11 brought with it.

  • telabadmanwot at 12:17am June 05, 2014

    The UK media is VERY GOOD at criticizing anything ‘foreign’. They are inherently racist in their comparisons, the BBC and tabloids in particular will report negatively about ‘others’ for example during the run up to the world cup they did a special on crack smoking mothers in Rio’s favellas, was there a similar BBC report on the many junkies in London for the Olympics? No. If Ryanair increase baggage fees, its front page news. When EasyJet increase fees, its not mentioned at all.

    I wouldn’t get too upset about the UK media, it is not free and used to control the masses, increase intolerance and blame others for problems prevelant in England.

  • Maxxis at 1:21am June 25, 2014

    The UK immigration when compared to that of East Asia, is a joke. The author of the article should take a look in the mirror first before he attacked the TSA and US airports in general.

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