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Airport Infrastructure and Baggage Screening Must Change To Improve Inbound Travel Experience, Says US Travel Association



by Mia Taylor
Last updated: 5:00 PM ET, Thu May 9, 2024

Inbound travel to this country is plagued by a variety of challenges that can make the experience far more taxing then it needs to be.

At the annual IPW travel industry convention that wrapped up earlier this week, the US Travel Association held a press conference at which it attempted to shine a light on these challenges.

The revelation that got perhaps the most significant amount of immediate attention among the gathered press members was that visa wait times continue to be an inordinate roadblock for international visitors.

U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said his recent check of the visa situation revealed that Columbians who want to come to the U.S. currently face wait times in excess of 600 days in order to get a visa appointment with the U.S. Consulate. Individuals coming from Mexico, meanwhile, face a staggering 800-day wait time.

But visa problems were merely one of the challenges Freeman sought to emphasize at an IPW press conference.

Travel to the United States is also impacted by “customs inefficiencies” and the “challenges travelers have trying to make a connection and having to re-screen their bags” in U.S. airports after disembarking from an arriving international flight and seeking to catch a connecting domestic flight in this country, said Freeman.

“On the customs side, too many travelers are waiting more than two hours to get into the United States, after spending 10, 12, or 14 hours on a flight just to land here,” said Freeman.

“When it comes to the re-screening of bags…it is a massive inconvenience for travelers to go through customs collect their bags and then have to re-screen their bags at the TSA checkpoint to make their connection,” added Freeman.

Checked luggage at baggage claim

Checked luggage at baggage claim. (Photo Credit: Aris Suwanmalee/Adobe Stock)

Inefficiencies and Solutions

To help address the challenges plaguing this country’s inbound tourism infrastructure, the US Travel Association recently created what it has dubbed the “Commission on Seamless & Secure Travel.” The commission’s mandate is to put forward ideas that the U.S. government can adopt to help make this country more competitive as a destination.

To that end, commission members are currently traveling around the United States reviewing operations at various airports to help identify opportunities for improvement. They’re also meeting with officials at various levels of the industry to discuss potential innovations.

During the past month, commission members visited Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to review new technologies that have been designed to speed travelers through TSA checkpoints in six seconds or less. Commission members also recently visited Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to meet with Customs and Border Protection officials and review the agency’s latest technologies and efforts to bring travelers through automated screening more quickly.

During a one-on-one interview with TravelPulse at IPW, Freeman elaborated on some of the ways he believes the country can begin to improve its inbound tourism infrastructure.

In particular, Freeman said that significantly expanding what’s known as the “pre-clearance” program can help eliminate the need for international travelers to re-screen luggage upon arrival in the U.S., when they’re seeking to catch a connecting domestic flight.

The United States pre-clearance program allows travelers and their bags to go through security screening for entrance into the United States in their country of embarkation.

“With pre-clearance you go through customs on other side,” explained
Freeman. “That means when I land in the United States, I’m [able to
land] in a domestic terminal” and thus bypass the re-screening process.

Unfortunately, U.S. pre-screening is not widely available across the world. Meaning, the lion’s share of arriving international travelers must still labor through the process of gathering their bags and having them re-checked in order to catch a domestic connection flight in this country.

Freeman said the expansion of the pre-screening program is a “very important” way to address the baggage frustrations that international arrivals face.

The reality unfortunately, is that there are countries where the U.S. pre-clearance program will simply not be a viable option or solution to the inefficient arrival process that international travelers face. Security issues prevent widespread implementation of the program, Freeman explained.

“To be totally transparent, it’s not just the airport aspect of it. The Department of Homeland Security is only going to [offer pre-clearance] if it feels like it has the right security relationship in place with the origin country,” Freeman said.

In cases where pre-clearance on foreign soil will not offer a solution, then reconfiguring airports in this country is another possibility, Freeman said.

The reconfiguration Freeman is talking about would involve redesigning airports to allow foreign arrivals to seamlessly and securely transfer from their international arriving flight to their domestic connection within the airport – without having to re-check bags or go through screening again. But even that option is fraught with potential challenges, including the massive renovations that would be required in airports across the United States.

“It’s a massive initiative. I’m concerned about the scalability of it,” admitted Freeman during his discussion with TravelPulse.

Reconfiguring airports would also take time, Freeman said. And it doesn’t offer a blanket solution.

There’s also the matter of funding an airport reconfiguration solution at airports across the country. The money, Freeman said, would likely come from a variety of sources.

“I think what you’ll see is a combination of government resources, airlines resources, and airport resources,” he said. “All of them recognize the inefficiency of the current situation. And all of them are seeking to solve it, some with greater urgency than others.”

Freeman said he’s cautiously optimistic that government leaders are up to the challenge ahead when it comes to taking action and addressing the improvements that the country’s inbound travel infrastructure so desperately requires.

But in his parting comments, Freeman also suggested that travel advisors can play a role in helping to bring about the needed improvements. Advisors can do so by reaching out to Congressional representatives and urging them to step up and support the path forward.

“I think we as an industry are not as vocal we need to be about the role the government has in ensuring that we can fly visitors here,” said Freeman. “Travel agents, in particular, are the grass roots army of the industry. And their support, their engagement, their realization that they need to be advocates, would be greatly appreciated.”

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