Adventures in US airport security

It seems America has already become a lot less welcoming of strangers.

I’ve long been an admirer of the United States, which isn’t exactly common among Canadians. My compatriots typically like to sneer at their southern neighbours, indignant at their inability to figure out decent medical care and repulsed at their intense preoccupation with assault rifles.

If you can look past that, though, you’ll find a country that is largely open and caring, with people who are kind and welcoming. Obviously that’s a vast generalization, but having spent much time in the United States I’ve seen far more good than bad.

But man…. They really have to figure out this airport security thing.

We were all set to fly Delta for the first time on December 27. The flight departed at 4:30pm from Victoria, Canada, which is a quintessential small-town Canadian airport. The rules are always to arrive three hours early for flights to the United States, but really? I suppose you could sit at the one, lonely Starbucks while waiting for your flight, but there’s not much else to do in the meantime. It’s so small it doesn’t have a single lounge.

We arrived at 3:15pm for our 4:30pm departure and as expected, there was not a soul around. We took our bags and moved towards the Delta check-in counter. With nobody in line we expected a speedy check-in, but no.  We were intercepted on our way by two burly security guards who identified themselves as US security agents. They wanted to ask us a few questions, and we obviously obliged.

What I expected to be a few quick questions quickly dived into detailed questions about the financial industry in Hong Kong, in which I work. They asked me about stock codes, what the major indices are in Hong Kong, etc, presumably to test whether I was authentic. While engaging, a group of three appeared behind us with lots of luggage.

“You guys can go ahead, as check-in closes shortly. I’ll talk to you after,” he said as he ushered them to the front.

A few seconds later another couple came in, and they were likewise ushered into line. As our questioning wrapped up, he released us, and we joined the line too, now behind the first two groups.

Several minutes elapsed as the check-in agent struggled with the first group of three, as one of them apparently had a passport issue. She spent quite a bit of time on the phone sorting it out as we waited. Eventually boarding passes were printed, and they were on their way. The group in front of us then approached the counter, and she said, “Sorry, check-in is closed. The system is off and I can’t help you. Here’s a card, call Delta to re-book.”

She came over and passed me a red card too, with a big toll-free number on it. Then she disappeared.

At first, I was somewhat astonished, like this couldn’t be real? We had arrived with 15 minutes to spare and nobody in line. I approached the security guard and explained he questioned us, put us at the end of a line, and we missed our flight.

“You’re supposed to be here two hours early, not 15 minutes early,” he said without any empathy whatsoever.

At this point, I should acknowledge, openly, that we should’ve been there with more than 15 minutes to spare. So with that in mind, my issues are as follows:

  • With a line forming and an automatic check-in cutoff, coupled with a passport issue with the first group being checked in, why weren’t more staff called to help? It would seem natural for the airline to check in as many as they can, especially when there is a hold-up and people are going to miss flights, and in our case connecting flights. There was never more than one agent checking in passengers the entire time we were present.
  • Security goes through this procedure each day when the Delta flight departs; surely the guard knew, by holding us up and letting others go first, we would end up missing our flight. Why not, when cut-off closes one hour before departure, and we’re 15 minutes before that time, talk to people *after* check-in? There seemed to be very little empathy or care for passengers, in terms of trying to get them on their way as best they could. 

Fast forward to today, at Vancouver International Airport, which is obviously much larger and more complex. We arrived for an Air Canada flight from YVR to SFO that departed at 8:40am. This time, we arrived at the airport at 6:45am to leave plenty of extra time… but even that was barely enough thanks to another snafu with US security.

Vancouver Airport has what’s called “co-location” immigration facilities, or “pre-clearance”. This means for flights to the United States, passengers can clear US immigration while in Vancouver Airport, and then technically be in the United States even before departure. Even the cell phone signal in that part of the airport switches to AT&T. Then upon landing in the US, they are free to grab their bags and go; it’s convenient, provided everything works.

(Incidentally, it is a similar co-location issue that involves Mainland China security agents at Hong Kong’s new Express Rail Link that is causing such an uproar.)

This time though, it didn’t work. At US immigration there was a Nexus and Global Entry line (Nexus being the fast-track for US and Canadian citizens), a line for Canadian/US passport holders, and a third line for those traveling to the US on visas. One in our group was using a Chinese passport with US visa, so an agent directed us to that line.

The line moved inch-by-inch for a few minutes as expected, before stopping entirely. We were about 9th in the queue, and could see the front: the agent handling immigration procedures in our line had stood up and walked away. The next guy in our line, a westerner with a long hipster beard, looked exasperated (I mention the beard because it made him easily identifiable, and place no value judgment on beards nor hipsters). I looked down at my phone to glance at the time: 7:35am. We waited until 7:55am, and literally not a single person in our line had moved. The bearded guy in the front frequently waved his arms in desperation, trying to get somebody’s attention; people behind him were looking around confused, with the woman behind us saying we had been forgotten. The clock struck 8am, with boarding for our flight at 8:10am. Still, we watched as the Nexus and passport lines on either side of us sped along, with our line held up.

I looked at the incredibly long line building behind us, and all of the angry and panicked faces. I don’t know exactly what happened, or why our line suddenly found itself without an immigration agent, but I know people missed flights because of it. The Nexus line began taking people from our line about every 5th person at 8:07am, a full 32 minutes later, which meant we cleared the line at 8:13am and ran full-speed to the gate. Once seated, I overheard the flight attendants say three Australians were in-line at immigration and would need to be re-booked.

I hesitate to draw too many conclusions based on two isolated incidents, but there was a theme that drew these two together: US security couldn’t be bothered to care. As the kids say, they gave zero f***s whatsoever. Is it an unreasonable expectation for them to want to provide good service? To try and smooth passengers’ journeys? To provide a touch of humanity and empathy in what they do? Maybe it is too much to ask. Maybe the US, which has taken a more isolationist and inward-looking turn, has no time for foreigners trying to enter the country — they are too busy trying to get them out. Or perhaps it’s always been this way, because the US deals with such massive numbers of visitors, immigrants and assorted asylum seekers every year. 

Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by living in Hong Kong, where it seems everybody is constantly under pressure to deliver, and there is an emphasis on efficiency. (I’m thinking more MTR, less HSBC here…)

These are ultimately small incidents, because the anger and panic subsides the second you get a passport stamp and you’re off to the gate. But they are tiny reminders of the extra hassles necessary to visit the United States, and they add up to the US becoming a less welcoming place to visit overall. Who wants to go where they aren’t welcome?

I’ll certainly think twice next time.

(Addendum: On the positive side, I twisted the screws tightly on Delta and they provided a full refund. I’d like to commend them for quick telephone service after we missed the flight, and issuing a refund on a non-refundable ticket.)

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.