Rude US Customs Officials: How Not To Welcome People To The United States

Some people should not be allowed to wear a uniform.

While flying from Spain to the U.S. to attend the Gadling annual team summit, I touched down first at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I got into line at U.S. Customs to enter the country.

The line was in a huge room with a row of bulletproof glass booths manned by U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials checking passports and visas. These booths blocked entrance to the baggage claim area and, officially, the United States. The line for U.S. citizens and Green Card holders was long but moving steadily thanks to several booths being open and the generally efficient work of the U.S. Customs folks manning them.

The line for foreigners was a different story. Only one booth was open and the line was practically at a standstill. There was a bit of grumbling in various languages but no loud complaining. Everyone just stood there looking jetlagged while watching a big flat screen TV hanging over the booths.

It was playing a promotional video about all the things to see in the United States. Images of the Grand Canyon, Alamo, Yosemite and other great attractions flickered across the screen, interspersed with a diversity of smiling Americans saying, “Welcome.”

As I waited my turn, one woman in her early twenties who looked like she was from Southeast Asia walked up to the head of the foreigners’ line where an airport worker stood.

“Excuse me,” the Asian woman said with a heavy accent, holding out her ticket, “I will be late for flight.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” the worker said, waving her off. “Get back in line.”

“But the flight–“

“Wait in line!”

The Asian woman quickly retreated, looking at her watch.I was about to shrug this off as Case #4,589,513 of Airport Rudeness when the tale took a turn for the worse. After a couple of minutes, the airport worker called over a U.S. Customs officer. I hesitate to describe him because you might think I’m exaggerating, but believe me when I say he was short, with a big paunch and black, greased back hair. His face was also greasy and over a poorly trimmed mustache he had a big, pockmarked nose – a boozer’s nose, a Bukowski nose.

The airport official said something to him and pointed at the Asian woman. The passenger looked over hopefully. The officer summoned her by jutting his chin in her direction.

The woman approached with her ticket held out.

“Excuse me. I am late for flight. . .”

The officer gestured at the ticket.

“What’s this?”

“My flight. . .”

“So you’re late? Everybody’s late! Hey, is anyone else here late?”

“I am!” some British wanker chimed in.

“Go,” the Customs agent said, dismissing her with a wave of the hand.

She stood there a moment, looking confused.

“Get back in line!” he shouted.

I almost said something. I almost said, “I’m not late for my flight. I have a three-hour layover. She can go in front of me. And stop being so unprofessional.”

But I didn’t. Unlike last month’s run-in with a rude airport security official, I was trying to enter a country, not leave one, and speaking up against this lowlife wouldn’t help the Asian woman and would almost certainly get me in trouble. So I didn’t say anything. I still feel bad about it, but there really wasn’t anything I could do. The fact that he did this within full sight of several of his coworkers showed that his work environment didn’t discourage that sort of thing.

Another small man with a bit of power treating other people like dirt.

We kept waiting in line as a succession of TV Americans welcomed us with big smiles. After a while the Asian woman stopped looking at her watch. She’d missed her flight.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Give Delta’s New York LaGuardia shuttle service a try

Those that travel frequently between New York’s LaGuardia and Chicago’s O’Hare airport know that it is among the more tedious routes to fly, particularly if you’re traveling on a legacy carrier. Older, less comfortable airplanes, tiny overhead bins packed to the gills with carry-on luggage, and heavy flight traffic are all the norm, leading to plenty of stressed-out travelers.

It’s for exactly these reasons I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised in recent months by Delta’s stellar shuttle service operating out of LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal. It’s a service designed to cater to frequent travelers in key markets, concentrating only on those that fly between New York to either Boston Logan, Washington Reagan or Chicago O’Hare. The smaller, out-of-the-way terminal location means much shorter security lines and less crowds, and they’ve fitted the place out with comfy leather seats, lots of power ports, and complimentary newspapers and magazines. What’s more, the carrier announced this week that Wi-Fi is now available on all shuttle flights, always a nice perk. Pair that with complimentary beer and wine in economy class and you’ll begin to feel like you’re flying up in first.

True, there are downsides to the service. Skittish fliers that don’t like small planes probably won’t like the smaller Embraer 170’s Delta uses on the route. And for anyone not traveling to Boston, Washington DC or Chicago, you’re pretty much out of luck if you wish to try this one out. Still, for travelers looking to enjoy a little extra flying comfort leaving from LaGuardia, the airport most conveniently located near Manhattan (JFK, ahem, I’m not looking at you…) give Delta Shuttle a try.

[Photo by Flickr user redlegsfan21]

Free airport WiFi for Nintendo 3DS users from Boingo Wireless

Boingo Wireless and Nintendo have teamed up to bring Nintendo 3DS owners free airport WiFi access in 42 airports across the United States, including Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK, and Houston George Bush Intercontinental.

The Nintendo 3DS is already a great travel companion, with its open-source Internet browser and built-in camera, not to mention a catalog of hundreds of addictive games featuring real 3D graphics. This new feature is one of several included in a system update that became available for download yesterday.

“Nintendo 3DS is our most connected device ever, and this agreement will allow people to stay entertained while they’re on the go,” said Zach Fountain, Nintendo of America’s Director of Strategic Partnerships. “Whether it’s accessing special offers and content, downloading items from the Nintendo eShop, receiving surprise SpotPass content, or automatically receiving 3D videos from the Nintendo Video service, there have never been more reasons to connect.”

Free airport WiFi from Boingo will also include access to Nintendo’s SpotPass feature, which allows the system to detect wireless hotspots and download special content from Nintendo, including exclusive promotions, 3D videos, and add-on game content.

Boingo manages wireless access in more than 400,000 locations around the world, including airports, hotel chains, cafes, restaurants, convention centers, and metropolitan hot zones. Their service generally costs $7.95 per 24 hour period in the United States, with monthly unlimited plans starting at $9.95.

Whoa. My Travelblog is Evidence.

On Monday, September 22nd, 2008, I boarded a flight for JFK. I’d been invited to cover Conde Nast Traveler’s World Savers Congress on Twitter and CNT was picking up the tab. They’d booked my ticket, airport limo, and a shoebox room right off Times Square. Wendy Perrin had invited me to dinner; I was starry eyed over the whole thing. It’s a pretty fancy day for an independent blogger when Conde Nast Traveler calls and wants to fly you out for an event. I was psyched.

Then my plane broke, and I didn’t get to have dinner with Wendy Perrin, and that bummed me out a lot. I did get to be one of the first people to tweet about an airline emergency, a status that has earned me exactly…. nothing. I wrote a blog post about the landing that a lot of people read — it got linked to from local newspapers and aviation blogs. Later, I learned that one of the passengers, Jewel Thomas, filed a lawsuit against American Airlines:

Thomas said that after the cabin lights went out, passengers were told to prepare for a rough landing at O’Hare, and that many began to pray. She said she was terrified and called her children on her cell phone, leaving messages saying she loved them.

About six months ago, I got a phone call from the law firm that’s representing American Airlines in the lawsuit. And on November 1, 2011, I attended a deposition. I answered a lot of questions about what, exactly, I saw happen when the plane was diverted to O’Hare.

It was nearly three years ago; there’s a lot I don’t remember. I didn’t remember, for example, that there had been firemen on the plane until the lawyer showed me a picture I’d taken. He passed over a print out of the blog post I’d written that day, comments and all. It was kind of weird to see that little post that I’d scribbled on the continuation flight from O’Hare to JFK handed back to me in this context.

You’d think I’d remember that, right? I didn’t. I also didn’t remember much about the people in my row — I was in an exit row at a window seat. I have zero recollection of people crying, praying, or making phone calls to their loved ones. I don’t remember what I did on the flight, not at all. What did I remember? Something big happened, right?

I remember a landing that was nowhere near as bad as a typical landing at Vienna, Austria’s perpetually windy airport. I remember a shift in realization that, oh, all those emergency vehicles racing this way? They’re for my plane! I remember the guy in the blue jumpsuit — in the terminal he patted me on the shoulder, very kindly, after I told him what had happened. I remember the smiling face of the woman on the grass at O’Hare. I remember that the cabin got very hot, and I remembered a woman walking her cooing baby in the aisle. I remember the stewardess on the replacement flight bringing me a couple of bottles of scotch, which I stowed in my backpack and drank later at my hotel. I remember buying a sandwich from a deli just a few doors from my hotel. When I walked in, two enormous African American guys in big blocky specs were playing chess and they were wildly friendly. They asked me where I was from and when I told them, one of them, the guy in a white track suit, responded, “Damn, girl, what are you doing all the way out THERE!?” as though I was his cousin and had moved too far away.

I hate to fly, though over the past three years I’ve become more relaxed on a plane. I still get green pretty easily, a little turbulence will cause me to break out into a sweat and wish I’d chosen an narrower obsession, one with rail travel, perhaps. Coach aggravates me to no end. I can’t get comfortable enough to sleep, and I’m a pacer, I get up and walk to the lav very frequently. I think it’s because I’m nervous.

There were two points that the lawyer for the plaintiffs — they’re plural, I learned today — seemed to be trying to lock down. The first was that perhaps I’d somehow just missed what was going on around me. I wasn’t paying attention. Passengers may have been praying or crying or making phone calls to their loved ones on the ground and I just didn’t notice it.

The other was that I’m somehow biased positively towards air travel because I’m a travel writer. At this point, I really had to try hard not to laugh. “Would you say it’s your job to promote tourism and travel?” I had to think about that. I suppose so, but I’ve also written about seasickness and the tragedies of history and just recently about how I had to haul myself across the planet in a blaze of fever. The premise that I just might be a booster for the airlines — well, it’s not fair, really, the lawyer doesn’t exactly know me.

“Flying,” I said, “is a necessary evil. If I could take the train everywhere, I would.”

I don’t watch the lawyer shows anymore, so I’m not exactly sure what happens next. I know I’ll get a copy of my deposition and I’ll probably read it over and think, “Oh, did I really say that?” Still, I stand by my potentially poorly observed and possibly pro-airline biased story: You’ve been in worse landings. And when a pilot puts a broken plane on the ground and everyone walks away, well, I’m all for that. Though I kind of want my New York dinner with Wendy Perrin. I feel like I got cheated out of that.

Photo credit: Pam Mandel. I took it while walking from the plane to the shuttle they’d brought to bring us to the terminal.

Photo of the day – Waiting at the gate

Today’s photo of the day is from a place every traveler has a love/hate relationship with: the airport gate. Beyond it lies exploration, excitement, or maybe just home. But it also stands for all the worst in travel: delays, cramped seats, and maybe the worst, other travelers. Flickr user davitydave philosophically calls this pic from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport “Each Waits His Own Way,” which is rather poetic for a picture of some dudes sitting around on ugly carpeting. How do you pass the time before boarding? Some of us frantically search for a wifi connection, others try to take a quick nap, and others, like the guy standing at right, like to look out onto the tarmac and imagine where all the planes are going.

Taken any good travel pics while waiting to board? Add them to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it as a future

photo of the day.