Airport Immigration Insanity: We’re Cramming Everyone Together Body-To-Body

Most of us know the story by now about how the U.S. got caught flat-footed on coronavirus. Despite a potential two month head start, we didn’t have the tests. The government would only allow one test – its own – and there weren’t enough. They tried to ramp up production but they sent out defective kits. Tests are still being rationed even as the government relaxes its own rules. There are plenty of tests around the world, we’re just not allowed to use them. If there’s one area where the government’s role is supposed to be undisputed it’s in public health, and here the U.S. has failed.

The conventional wisdom is that we need to ‘flatten the curve’. We need to know who is ill, and where, and we need to isolate those people. And we need to ‘social distance’ limiting large gatherings and staying 6 feet away from other people where possible.

The U.S. is limiting international travel and funneling it through a limited set of airports. That’s supposed to allow them to screen passengers better entering the country. Here the government is failing too, and possibly making things worse. (HT: Reid F. and Jonathan W.)

The virus is already here and spreading. We don’t know how badly because we are keeping out foreign tests. Our solution to that appears to be keeping out foreigners and forcing everyone in close proximity to each other to encourage spread.

Don’t lay this at the feet of budget cuts either. If you’re claiming that the CDC’s budget was cut that’s actually wrong. More importantly U.S. immigration and customs lines aren’t being managed by the CDC. If there’s one area you can’t argue there’s been starving off of resources in recent years it’s at the borders.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Forbes reported that Cathay Pacific (CX) is actually ADDING CAPACITY including restoring flights like JFK to HKG on March 19 to accomodate people fleeing U.S. to go Hong Kong…. and now HK is imposing quarantines on visitors from HK to protect HK from Americans. Seems the shoe is now on the other foot…

  2. So easy to complain, whine, and be enraged. Can complain no matter how this difficult situation is implemented or handled. Gets tiresome. Helping to make the world more negative by the minute.

  3. Neutron Jack lives on.
    Smart bomb from a stupid Government agency, no termination expenses and a reduction in entitlement benefits to those 65+.
    A science and math education should be mandatory or this is what happens.
    We may be the dominate specie but we certainly are not the smartest.
    We are no smarter than the lemmings.

  4. It would be interesting to track these people who had to be almost cheek to cheek for hours due to government unpreparedness and incompetence. If there is a higher rate of infection among these people, then the government is directly responsible. Unfortunately, one cannot sue the government for damages. They will say they were following all the proper procedures as given to them. Sucks. Sucks badly.

  5. I came back into the USA on March 12 (Thursday) and JFK (terminal 1) was a ghost town. Of course, that was before the European ban.

  6. Actually, there is an article in Wall Street Journal today about airport crowds. Sure glad I made it back.

  7. If waiting at the immigration line elbow you elbow is unavoidable at least there should be masks and gloves for everyone to wear at the bare minimum.
    The lack of common sense never ceases to amaze me!
    No overseas travel for me this year for sure… domestic travel?
    That’s welcome. Deserted airports and planes…plenty of “social distances” there. Lol

  8. I’d like to lay this at the feet of the guy who “misspoke” in the first announcement and forgot to say that US Nationals were not included in the ban. Friends of ours rushed back to the US needlessly.

    How to make a bad situation worse? Rushed announcements, rushed planning, mis-information from the highest authority. The top people running our government right now are a disaster.

  9. I agree with Als, above. This is incompetence from an administration that each and every time it changes to border policy (over three years), has failed to tell – in advance – those who need to enact it. They change the wording, the timing, and the policy itself, while the frontlines scramble. Every single time.

  10. Coming from Mexico and Just breezed through immigration at DFW 10 minutes ago. It was a ghost town. Probably because it’s too early for the bulk of the inbound flights.
    It’s understandable they weren’t prepared. A few weeks ago, trump said the whole thing would vanish. Only 50 cases and would soon be only 1 or 2.
    If this doesn’t destroy his re-election chances, I have mercy for those who vote for him. Sad that we all live with the consequences.

  11. If there’s one area where the government’s role is supposed to be undisputed it’s in public health, and here the U.S. has failed.

    Don’t lay this at the feet of budget cuts either. If you’re claiming that the CDC’s budget was cut that’s actually wrong. More importantly U.S. immigration and customs lines aren’t being managed by the CDC.

    Sorry Gary, this doesn’t fly. It’s not “the US” that’s failed, it’s the “small-government-at-all-cost” politics of the Reagan revolution that have failed. That can’t even been laid at the feet of Donald Trump who, for the most part, is simply the mindless instrumentality of execution of policies driven by the Grover Norquists, Jack Kemps, John Boltons and, yes, Gary Leffs of the world.

    Yes, Trump left us four weeks behind the curve by resisting testing but even if we’d mobilized when we should have we had already eliminated the governmental structures that existed to mitigate EXACTLY the situation that developed. True, simply having those structures would not have been enough — they have to be well managed and effective, which requires attention and practice exactly at time they’re NOT needed. Instead, they were eliminated in the name of reducing “government overreach”.

    Had the system been functioning well — had the system even existed — and had the decision to restrict travel been made in a competent fashion, not in an hour or two to shore up the markets and the “ratings”, then there is at least a possibility that public health staff could have been dispatched to the points of entry and, with the help of additional security (possibly the National Guard) that airport facilities could have been temporally reconfigured to handle the predictable-to professionals influx of passengers.

    And this is why doctrinaire, knee-jerk government- drowners deserve nothing but approbation and public derision now and in the future when they spew on matters in which they have so disastrously already been victorious.

  12. Good points in the comments on how dislike of government breeds inability to provide basic protections for people

    Don in ATL makes a good suggestion for follow up tracking

  13. It’s a conundrum. Less testing/screening would speed the process and reduce crowding. This would reduce virus transmission. But a rapid screening process could have negative consequences too.

  14. I don’t understand how immigration lines are so long. Just 10 days ago we landed on a flight NRT to DFW on JAL. There were no lines, we were through in a few minutes. Our flight had 70% empty seats.

  15. @David – there wasn’t a European travel ban 10 days ago

    Nor was CBP staffed to handle this inevitable weekend crush post announcement

  16. Not like we’ll ever really know, but I wonder how many people have contracted the virus while being stuck together for hours and hours right next to each other. All it would take is one person in there with infection and in a few hours, hundreds if not the majority of the room will get infected. Then they get sent off into the wild to spread to others.

    The execution of this leaves a lot to be desired.

  17. Lol, gloves and masks wouldn’t stop the virus. Hand sanitizer wouldn’t either.

    Has no one been keeping up with actual virologist reports?!

  18. This is insane and the government should not have this mass of people standing like sardines in the midst of all this sickness! I am sure they could come up with another solution to this! Totally absurd!

  19. Government does not own/control airports. Airports are independent. Have you ever seen a person wearing a blue or a red coat. Yes this person controls the lines. That person making minimum wage is hired by the airports. Guess who dictates the airports. The airlines . Hey may be we are on to something.

  20. Thanks to Gary Leff for writing an excellent, informative, and timely blog.
    I have been traveling for 45 years and you have enhanced my knowledge and skills set with your straightforward, honest and open, and evenhanded commentary.
    Keep on keeping it honest, factual, and apolitical.

    I appreciate what you do for the traveling community.

    So here is my commentary on this article.

    I came into Detroit DTW the afternoon of March 14 from Paris CDG, after driving from the far northwest coast of Spain to Paris over 2 days in hopes of getting my flight changed.

    My original return was to be from Amsterdam, but that would require me to drive through 3 “hot zones” of coronavirus in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. As a physician, thus was not desirable.

    My ticket was changed and I got home, do grateful for that.
    Delta charged me about $1300 to change my ticket and then AirFrance charged me about $450 as a “penalty fee”.

    Upon arrival in Detroit, we deplaned and then it got interesting.
    Basic triage of those arriving was not performed and delayed the process, AND mixed potentially exposed and/or potentially infected individuals with the general population of travelers.
    As a physician, simple, known, public health and emergency room type triage would have accelerated and improved processing of people.

    Contrary to what some people have said, this is NOT a Trump induced problem. It IS a result of a highly contagious and virulent infective organism, magnified by a delay in reporting by China, and US voluntary corporate dependence on offshore manufacture of medical supplies and medications, and logistics, with now recognized multiple documented cases of tainted and ineffective medications and defective equipment. Also, government administrative doctors do not practice medicine, and might not have practiced for decades.
    The US needs to want their medicines and supplies to be the best, and that is not necessarily the cheapest.

    Here are a few suggestions to improve the process.

    1. Hand the paper form out on the plane, have people deplane when it is completed, have it checked outside the ramp and take their temperature, and provide a mask and have them hand sanitizer before going to each and every stage.
    2. Those needing advanced screenings get separated and get masks and gloves and are transported away from people in the terminal.
    3. Those that are cleared, head to Customs, clear Customs, get the paper information handouts as they clear Customs and get their baggage and move on.
    4. Separate lines could be added if needed for those with connecting flights to limit missed flights.
    5. Separate lines for those with children, strollers, wheelchairs, crutches, medical conditions.

    These suggestions would stagger the effects of departure from the planes as some write or walk faster, some collect and transport luggage faster, staff could assist those that need assistance, etc.
    This staggers the flow of people at each stage.
    Have separate lines for those with connecting flights and those that are at their final destination so as to limit delays for those with connecting flights and thus diminish missed flights and limit revenue loss and stress effects on airlines and airline employees, and freeing up employees to assist other passenger needs such as rebooking flights, overnight hotels, etc.

    Here is how it went in Detroit 03/14/20:
    I landed 2.5 hours ago in Detroit and missed my flight to Cincy but have one at 915.
    Mine was the first flight for the enhanced screening and it went like this.
    Photo at Global Entry kiosk.
    See Custom agent.
    Get in line of 200 people.
    Fill out questionnaire.
    Agent reviews questionnaire in 200 person line.
    Go into CDC screening, no blood or labs for me.
    Next line for verbal instructions on what to look for and paperwork to take home.
    Another line of 50 or so people to be interviewed by 2nd Border agent.
    Get luggage.
    Go through security again.
    THEN, head to gate for connecting flight.
    2.5 hours process from time I hit kiosk until I cleared security to continue, and it was 99% spent before reclearing security.

    Thanks for allowing us to comment

  21. Actually, I have two more things to report.
    –In the First Lounge in Hanada, all the food was wrapped in plastic. It did not look that appetizing, so I skipped.
    –I expected all Japanese in Hanada to be wearing masks, like in Seoul. Actually about half of the Japanese were not.
    –Just observations. No conclusion.

  22. To Jake Vinson… WOW! I feel sorry for what you went thru! and I just cannot see why the airlines charged you all that extra money, I had read they were waving “change fees” etc.
    And all the point you made about having a triage as you deplane etc. are excellent points and ideas, wish someone would listen to you and do this ASAP!

  23. I’m sorry to have to say this, but anyone who has had to work closely with government will tell you that in most cases they are just woefully incompetent. Not a partisan issue either, they were as worthless under President Barry as they are under President Donald.
    These are unprecedented times with an issue that came out of left field, but this is just a disgrace of poor execution.
    But then, as I was wont to remind folk in the days of Obamascare, and today to those who want socialized healthcare (FYI I was born in the UK and am sincerely glad to be out of the clutches of the NHS just now): “Just remember, these are the people the government will put in charge of your healthcare.”

  24. As the virus spreads in the US, it won’t be long before other countries ban travel from the US or require detailed health screening or quarantines for anyone who has been in the US within 14 days of travel.

  25. @john: Taiwan has close ties to China? Really?
    I’d suggest it’s their separation that has kept them safe.
    HK has a population the same as NYC, mas o menos. They have done a great job, as has Singapore although they started out as a spreader. To compare managing that size population to countries with several or more times more folk, with a greater geographical dispersion is suspect, IMO.
    I prefer this argument:

  26. These scenes played out in my mind Wednesday evening right after Trump’s announcement of the travel ban. I pictured the mobs in European airports and Customs and decided to cancel my trip that night and catch the last flight back home from Newark. Hated having to make the decision but every day that passes makes me feel better. The Austrian ski areas and hotels where I was heading were all closed today and tomorrow and then this cluster returning home. Thank god for a three hour mechanical delay or I would have learned about the travel ban upon landing in Europe.

  27. @ Woofie, the point is there are places doing a better job than we are. Let’s (the experts) figure out why and see if those measures can help here. My fear is that it is much too late do much now to prevent spread and we are forced to just deal with the consequences.

  28. Articles like this one are written by opportunistic idiots. There is no help here. Let’s blame the government who is supposed to be an all knowing entity. Bull feathers. They are human beings mixed in with the rest of us trying to understand something unprecedented in our lifetime. Journalists like this just lie in wait to spread more bad news. If you are so damn intelligent, go to your nearest federal office with your opinions and advice. You and others like you are just another virus.

  29. We don’t need your misinformed political rhetoric Gary, save the opining for people who care.

  30. Came back from Santiago Chile on AA’s last flight from Santiago for awhile. Arrived in DFW at 5 am. No health screening. Wife had GE and got thru checkin in about five minutes. Took me twenty minutes.

  31. @Purdon Jennifer and John Sample: did the two of you just meet on Tinder and decide your first date was send like hate messages to blog writers? Why do you read this blog if you dislike it so much?

    I came back to the US to try and help my 18 year old daughter prepare for what was to come on Saturday the 14th. Don”t try and put blame on low paid airport staff, they were hampered by poorly outlined CDC demands. The decision to make changes to entry on a short notice with no plan in place was lunacy and made by an administration that has no clue. Quit pretending that voting for rich business people that will drain the swamp, or rough and tough actors makes any sense Running a country takes a skill none of these people have and you are seeing the results now After watching Americans roaming around like the requests to isolate didn’t apply to them, i finished with my daughter’s preparations and went back home to Europe where people are taking this seriously and not as a hoax I would prefer the health care here than rely on my government plan in the states, end of story.

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