Long Passport Waits At Airports? It’s Time to Channel Walt Disney.

A thick passport signals a lot of international trips, and a lot of experience with lines at airport International Arrival Halls.   I know because I have a fat one.  And selfishly, that’s one reason I am happy to see President Obama’s recent initiative to reduce long wait times for international travelers at US airports.

But it goes way beyond that.

Lengthy delays cast a poor light on the United States.   US Travel Association research finds nearly two in three overseas travelers say their impressions of the US include the frustration of long lines and wait times during the customs and reentry process.   And one in three said the US customs and entry process is falling behind that of other countries or “is the worse they’ve seen.”

And it’s costly.  Additional research shows overseas travelers are avoiding the United States and instead going elsewhere for their trips to avoid entry hassles.  That costs jobs and business.

President Obama has recognized a problem and set a goal for action.   The stakes are high:  nearly 70 million travelers arrive into the United States annually, and that’s a lot of favorable (or not) impressions.   If there’s good news, it’s that with some ingenuity, we can create a new standard for international welcome.

It’s time to channel Walt Disney.

Walt Disney was a master animator with an equally keen business mind. When Disneyland opened, he knew long lines would be a challenge and he addressed them through what I would categorize as distraction, staff training and design.   To my mind, those are the three best answers to improve our International Arrivals Hall experiences, too.  Here’s how:

Re-purpose existing video screens with content that shows the best of America as a destination.  Mix with music, humor and inspiration.  Speak with vibrant images and sounds rather than words, so that native language becomes not so important.  Curate the best of Disney, Discovery, ESPN, and the Travel Channel to create a memorable experience.

Coach staff to be overtly welcoming.  In this new world, line monitors become greeters and  passport control officers become part-time ambassadors.  Once passports are scrutinized, they offer a “Welcome Back” to Americans or a “Welcome to the United States” in a handful of quickly memorized languages.

Reconfigure International Arrival Halls with Disney in mind.  Disneyland’s amusement ride lines are purposely designed so you become less aware of the beginning or end … and more contented during your wait. International Arrival Halls could be revamped the same way, within their existing footprint.

Since the U.S. customs and entry process is necessarily shaped by security considerations, I doubt our International Arrival Halls will ever be the next “happiest place on earth”.  Yet by applying some well-proven guest engagement principles from other arenas (of course, Disney is one very good example but there are others), we can significantly improve the traveler experience without compromising security.


By | 2015-04-22T10:14:23+00:00 July 10th, 2014|All, Thoughts From the Road|0 Comments

About the Author:

Since 2000, Russ has been the CEO of Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a nonprofit, member organization founded on an enduring belief in the power of travel to foster a deeper understanding of people, places, and the world around. The HI USA hostel network is consistently recognized as one of the best in world by the International Youth Hostel Federation and by independent rating agencies. Russ has been a featured speaker at national and international conferences on topics ranging from experiential education to nonprofit management. Russ serves on the Boards of the UNWTO, US Travel Association, and WYSTC.

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