Consider these facts:

  • By 2017, Asia’s middle class will be greater in number than Europe’s and North America’s. Combined.
  • Within eight years, there will be 670 million middle class people in China, about twice the combined current population of the United States and Canada.
  • Every year, 65 million people are added to the world’s urban population, the equivalent of seven Chicagolands.
  • According to Moises Naim’s book, The End of Power (read it!), all of the global growth in the middle class – the people most likely to start traveling and to start businesses, the people who will undergird the markets of the future – is in the emerging economies.

If all of this is anywhere near accurate, a picture clearly emerges. For all the talk and clichés about a global market and a global economy, the talk and clichés have morphed into truth.

So how do we stack up in the United States? Not so good. We have an aviation system and mindset that developed when flying people around the United States was enough. When our system and mindset were formed, China was a communist disaster and Korea decidedly third world. Singapore and Hong Kong? Most people thought of them as exotic settings for James Bond movies. The UAE and Qatar? Please. But today, all of these places understand the changing nature of global travel, commerce and aviation. We in the United States do not, and we will pay a price.

An examination of the inadequacies of airport and airline policies and mindsets requires a separate discussion. But the fact is that even if we had the airlines and airports needed to compete in this new world, we would be hampered by our out-of-date approach to customs and immigration, which, by the way, is the fastest growing area of concern for our major international gateways. Lines are too long, and people are not treated as well as they should be. People transiting have to officially enter the country and be re-screened before going to their connection, even though all have already been through security.

These functions are under-resourced and under-staffed, seen by Congress as simply government overhead. Because of this, there are actually incidences of international service being turned away because of a lack of staff – even though we might have an open skies agreement allowing the service. And since these functions are rarely seen as part of an effort to facilitate travel and more often seen as a law enforcement function, there is little incentive to think anew anyway.

I can’t imagine there is anyone out there, among all those billions in the new emerging markets, who would prefer to travel through the United States to get anywhere. These facts ensure that the United States will remain on the sidelines of a global hub system. And if you are not a hub, you are a spoke. If you are a spoke, you have relatively less control over the depth of your connectivity to the air transport system. That is our future, unless we change.

As mentioned in my earlier post (One Cheer for CBP), there is reason for a little bit of optimism. Trusted traveler concepts are being deployed, as is technology. The visa waiver program has expanded, and the process of obtaining visas has become somewhat easier in China and Brazil, though it is still way too onerous for many. But we have a long way to go and have already damaged our brand. Indeed, nothing pained me more during my eight years as President of ACI-North America than hearing my colleagues from around the world tell me how much they hate entering our wonderful country.

We have a system and an approach that was developed when international travel was an exotic privilege for relatively few. A system that has not adapted to new global realities was made even more difficult in the months and years after 9/11. While this is understandable, enough time has passed that we can learn some lessons and change the way we do things.

We need to provide staffing resources adequate to the task, and we need to make better and quicker use of technology to process passengers. We need to stop re-screening connecting international passengers and bags as if they all just came in off the street. We can start with flights from certain allied countries. We need a way for transiting passengers to simply go to their next flight; this will require changes on the part of everyone concerned, including airports.

Some of these things cost, but the cost of doing nothing is higher. Some in the political world will think we are shortchanging security; these changes will allow better security by better focusing resources. While we are always seeking to “solve” the latest problem, we never seem to actually learn and apply lessons. We need a fundamental re-think. Now.

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 – 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