America, land of the free, right? For reasons I’ll explain shortly, below, I waited over an hour to clear immigration as a US citizen yesterday. It wasn’t because there was a huge backlog of arrivals, either.
The wait was purely because US immigration is generally slow, inefficient and lacking a few features which many European and other airports have had forever. Should we have these features? I’d say yes. It can’t be any worse than it is.
But What About Global Entry?
Unfortunately, because the US doesn’t miss a trick with paperwork or billing, our 2 year old daughter also needs it, otherwise we can’t use it when we travel with her. She is conditionally approved, but can’t use the service until she’s “interviewed.”
That’d be fairly simple in normal times, but backlogs for appointments are next to impossible. The next available appointment is currently in September. Don’t get me started on that. She’s two. I can’t wait to hear her responses to questions as to any links to extremist groups, or criminal records.
Global Entry is great, but I fear it may have created a backlog in tech updates for everyone else who travels internationally. US processing technology feels behind most others now. Arriving in the US is just slower than most other places.
Why No Family Lanes?
In Europe, people traveling with a child under the age of 3 always has a kind of priority access at airport immigration. Helpful agents seek families out and pull them out of line, if they don’t know about it. Tourists are seen as a priority.
Make no mistake about it: tourism is a huge, multi-billion dollar annual business to most countries, and smart countries do their best to make the formalities around any immigration procedures as pain free and fast as possible.
The US has never used family lanes, and I think it creates a bad visitor experience in comparison to current global benchmarks for travel experience.
Kids under 3, all of whom would’ve come off an international flight, are already at the end of the line with patience after arrival. Making them wait in long queues can ruin a trip before it starts. The UK also offers a dedicated family lane.
Other Countries Use E-Gates Like Global Entry
E-gates aren’t always your friend, but more often than not, they are. They are fast, they’re secure, they’re tech driven — and allow both citizens and residents, as well as foreign visitors to use them.
Facial recognition technology matches up identity with passport chips and all sorts of AI crazy stuff happens to validate travelers. Don’t forget, most risk assessments are done before a passenger boards a flight, not after they arrive.
This is where I wonder if Global Entry has sacrificed the overall US arrival experience, for the sake of making some extra bucks. I’m all for capitalism and creating new and better premium options, but not as much when it makes the general traveler options worse than other countries.
Americans arriving in the UK, Australia and a variety of others have access to e-gates, where staffing is never a concern. 20-30 lanes are always open, and with processing typically around 30 seconds each, 30 people are going through every 30 seconds.
On arrival in the United States, there were two (2!) US CBP officers staffed to handle the US citizen line at JFK on my arrival. There were three or four for the other arrivals lane. Each process took around 2-3 minutes, which meant we were processing around two to three US citizens, per minute or two.
There were no more than 60 people in front of us and it took over an hour.
It just doesn’t have to be this way. The US easily has the technology to use e-gates like most of the rest of the developed world, for both US arrivals and foreign visitors. It’s so much faster, and has never been known to be less secure. Hello, big data.
The gates can still refer people to secondary screening and manual checks from CBP officers, if there are any questions or concerns. If anything, it creates an extra layer of security.
It seemed like things were going in this direction in the US, with the birth of Mobile Passport and more kiosks, but at least in JFK T7, they were nowhere to be found this time around. A long evening became painfully long for the 300 people on my flight. It was the same story in Austin just a week or two before, for my colleagues.
American Tourism Growth Has Lagged
Some have blamed political issues in the last few years, others have blamed a rise in gun crime, but for many frequent travelers, the visitor experience is often the culprit for prioritizing other destinations.
High value travelers have prioritized other countries with better visitor experiences and the numbers don’t lie. In 2019, as the world of tourism was surpassing records the US was one of the few countries in the top 10 not keeping up with growth.
Similar trends have continued in 2022, though other factors like travel restrictions are other factors. The US hasn’t prioritized visitor experience at airports. Tourism driven countries have.
The Maldives created a loyalty program for visitors, with special perks for frequent trips, including special fast tracks and destination discounts. The US is a tourism driven country, it just doesn’t like to act like it.
Improving The Visitor Experience
The US hasn’t invested time and resources into modernizing airports and the US CBP arrival experience the way other countries have. Global Entry is the noted exception, but its criteria for enrollment remain challenging, and scheduling an interview is near impossible at the moment.
I’m all for creating more premium features to see what travelers are willing to pay for, like the public-private partnership with PS @ LAX, but I’d love to see the baseline travel experience improved for all visitors.
It sends the wrong message to make people queue for hours, when they’re coming to spend money in your country.