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

U.S. CustomsSome 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]

Cockpit Chronicles: How to bypass U.S. Customs with Global Entry

Sometimes it seems like there’s more time spent standing in line than actually flying when you’re traveling. There’s a line at check-in, security, customs and immigration, the gate, and on the other end while deplaning, going through customs and immigration and finally baggage claim. International travelers know that the U.S. immigration line that forms when coming into the United States can be one of the longest lines they’ll experience.

Fortunately for crew members while at work, we’re given either an employee line for security or allowed to move to the front of the line. Customs in many other countries are abbreviated for pilots and flight attendants, but back at home, the crew line can be even slower than the line for passengers.

After flying for many hours to get to the U.S., overseas pilots and flight attendants, experience even longer delays while going through our immigration lines. Each time they come here, which can be as much as five times a month, they have to submit fingerprints and have their photo taken. And for some reason, the computer takes quite a few minutes to process for each crew member. It’s especially irksome for them, since U.S. crews arriving in their country experience little or no customs interrogation at all.

So we cringe anytime we see a 747 that has just arrived before us in Boston, since it often means we’ll be behind the 18 crew members coming from France or Germany. But we’ve discovered a way around these lines that’s available to all U.S. travelers.
The best way to bypass all this hassle is by using the new “Global Entry” program. This almost secretive ‘line-skipping’ club is available to frequent travelers as well. Imagine arriving from your trip, and instead of waiting in line, you simply walk up to an ATM style kiosk and after just 60 seconds, you’re on your way.

But the first step to be registered for Global Entry is to sign up at their website and answer a few questions in preparation for the background check.

The process took me about 15 minutes, mostly because because I had to list all the countries I had visited in the past year. After submitting a fee of $100 to be in the program for the next five years, I was told that I’d be contacted when the checks were complete, after which, I could then schedule an interview with a Customs agent.

I never actually received that notification, but I looked up my status after a few days and discovered that my background check was complete and I could schedule an interview online.

The options were wide open for times and dates, so I picked the soonest available slot. I was anxious to sail through customs after my next trip, while waving at the rest of my coworkers as I passed by.

The interview took place at the airport, not far from where we normally exit the terminal after our screening. After collecting all ten fingerprints and answering a few simple questions, I was good to go. No card was needed-my passport would serve as the key.

At the interview, they took a moment to demonstrate the steps involved when I used the ATM style kiosk next to the customs line. First, I had my passport, a non-RFID chipped older style version, scanned while a camera looked at my face. Then I placed my fingers over a scanner before answering a few questions. In the future, if I’m carrying less than the maximum exemption of goods for crew members, I won’t have to fill out any declarations paperwork, a nice bonus I hadn’t expected.

Global Entry

The kiosk knows which flight you were on and, after confirming the flight information, it prints out a piece of paper that you then take to the customs officer just before leaving the terminal.

I’ve now been using Global Entry for almost a year and I have yet to stand in line for a kiosk in Miami, New York, San Juan or Boston. In the beginning, there was a bit of confusion as to how much was required of someone using Global Entry, but they now just look at the receipt before letting me pass.

It seems to be the best kept secret for frequent international travelers, since I’ve never encountered anyone else in line.

If you fly more than three times a year, I’d recommend taking the time to get registered with Global Entry. I only wish it could be made available for foreign crews and travelers as well.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.