In an earlier post, I talked about how I have observed changes, mostly for the better, at TSA during the 8 years I ran the airport industry trade association Airports Council International ā€“ North America or ACI-NA. Today, Iā€™d like to talk about Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The good news is that there is change for the better. The bad news is that it is much more incremental, starts from a much lower base, and the agency suffers from resource and attention deficits from Congress.

Five years ago, I would have written that CBP was the worst agency in the federal government, almost hopeless. It was not responsive at all to stakeholders, seemed resistant to doing business in any kind of new way, and was being starved of resources by a Congress that seemed to regard the function as being largely involved in law enforcement overhead. The idea of travel facilitation did not seem a priority in the agency or in Congress. CBP agents hardly went out of their way to be friendly to visitors, to be kind. Indeed, it was always frustrating to hear airport officials from other countries express their dislike of visiting the United States.

What was especially frustrating to airports was that, regardless of the number of open skies arrangements the United States had negotiated, in the end, they were stripped of meaning as the skies are only as open as the (mysterious) CBP staffing model says they are.

Fortunately, recent leadership at CBP has been much more open to new thinking, and there is a more positive atmosphere among top officials toward working with airports. Old policies and staffing models remain a frustration, but at least the attitude has changed for the better.

There is also much more interest in exploring new ways to facilitate passengers, as shown by CBP willingness to utilize the Automated Border Crossing technology pioneered in Canada. These are the kinds of things CBP rarely seemed interested in 8 years ago but now seems much more willing to do. Global Entry is a major step forward, and I hope CBP will join with industry to figure out more creative ways to market it.

I do believe there remains a culture among CBP officers that is much less friendly to foreign visitors than should be the case. Indeed, I think the law enforcement mentality is far too pervasive, especially when considering the people coming through have all already been screened. And I absolutely believe Congress fails to understand the importance of this function, how it deters travel, and how it stunts an important economic engine. It may even be that many on the Hill could not be made to care about such things. After all, if some foreigners are dissuaded from traveling to the United States, who cares? But as long as CBP is under-resourced and allows a law enforcement mentality to dominate, we will fall further behind in our efforts to attract high-spending overseas visitors.

For their much improved attitude to stakeholder engagement and willingness to try new approaches, one cheer. The other two cheers will have to wait until Congress realizes the importance of this function, until we make much better use of new technologies and programs (and market them better) and until the law enforcement mentality is replaced with a facilitation mentality.

Greg Principato blogs primarily on aviation and transportation security. His involvement in aviation and transportation infrastructure spans more than thirty years. He previously served as President of Airports Council International ā€“ North American from 2005 to 2013, where he oversaw the leading association of airports and airport-related businesses in North America, which enplane nearly all of the domestic and international airline passenger and cargo traffic on the continent. ACI-NA is the largest of the five worldwide regions of Airports Council International. Read More