I recently watched the 1967 classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As a travel person, one scene that really stood out was when Sidney Poitier and his fiancé stood at the San Francisco Airport gate to greet his parents who flew up from Los Angeles. In that simpler era, they had no security check but just walked to the gate – as I remember my parents doing when picking me up at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for trips home from college in Boston.
I also noticed that the parents walked down steps into the elements and entered through a ground-level door – before jet bridges became commonplace at larger airports.
Many things have changed since 1967, including of course several times more passengers, as an elite form of travel has become accessible to almost anyone. We now have many more conveniences such as jet bridges and lots of dining and shopping outlets. And ubiquitous cell phones that allow calls anytime and anywhere, instead of the payphones (requiring that elusive dime!) such as Poitier’s fiancé used in the film.
Of course, due to various incidents of hijacking and terrorism since 1967, security has become much tighter and more complicated. This can often lead to frustration, but there have also been enhancements that make travel easier. Here are some of those innovations that are available to Americans, and to international travelers who qualify:
1. TSA Pre-Check
Screening of carry-on luggage started on April 1, 1973 – I remember it well since I was flying home after a high school year in Japan. Before I could go to the gate in San Francisco, I had to open everything – including a well-wrapped doll that a Japanese friend gave me at the Tokyo airport before that flight. After 9/11, the TSA was formed, and security became much stricter. Long security lines became part of travel, but TSA Pre-Check expedites the screening process for those who register since we no longer need to take steps such as removing our shoes, pulling out our laptop computers, etc. Having some travelers use the Pre-Check line seems to shorten the regular line as well.
2. CLEAR and similar pre-clearance programs
One bottleneck is the line to show id before going through the TSA security checkpoint. CLEAR is a service now available at many US airports to speed this process. The registration process includes giving biometric information. Then each time you fly you can go to a CLEAR kiosk. It reads your eyes or fingerprints to confirm that you match your boarding pass, then you can go directly to the security line. Having CLEAR plus pre-check means that the entire security process often takes less than 5 minutes.
3. Global Entry
Another travel bottleneck is the Immigration and Customs clearance upon arrival back into the United States. Anyone who enrolls in Global Entry can go directly to a special kiosk, go through a quick identity check, then go directly to baggage claim. Once they have their bags, they can also bypass the Customs line and promptly get on their way.
4. Immigration kiosks
Once the US Immigration service saw the effectiveness of the Global Entry kiosks, they added similar kiosks for all US citizens and pre-qualified citizens of a few other countries. These travelers can also skip the Immigration line and go directly to the baggage claim. The only difference with Global Entry is that non-GE travelers must stand in the customs line, which can be quite long at busy times.
5. APEC Card
This is a card issued by several countries in the Asia-Pacific region and allows expedited entry for travelers enrolled in Global Entry and similar programs in other countries. American travelers can obtain an APEC Card for a small additional fee when enrolling in or renewing Global Entry. I have used my APEC card in Japan, South Korea, China, and Hong Kong.
6. Visa Waivers for Visitors to US (with reciprocal arrangements)
The United States has steadily increased the number of countries whose citizens can visit the US without a visa, and some other countries have reciprocated. In recent years, the US added a requirement that these travelers must notify the US government of planned trips through the ESTA process, but this is still vastly simpler than applying for a visa to the US.
7. Visa to US – telephone interviews
All applicants for a visa to the US are required to have an interview. This used to be in person, sometimes requiring a traveler to make a trip to their capital city for an interview. However, in recent years the US authorities have allowed telephone interviews from secure locations. This has facilitated a large increase in the number of visitors from China to the US, as well as from other countries where this has been implemented. (A decade ago, I was the Chair of the China Inbound Task Force of the National Tour Association, and my committee spearheaded this effort, making the business case for increased tourism making the national economy stronger.)
8. International Visas
Many countries, such as Argentina, Chile, and Brazil have eliminated visa requirements for citizens of the US and several other countries. In addition, countries such as China now allow 10-year visas instead of requiring a new visit for each visit. The biggest hassle of obtaining visas has traditionally been the need to mail passports to a consulate or embassy or visa service. However, many countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Sri Lanka, India, Tanzania, and Kenya now offer online visa registration.
9. Airport Lounges
There have also been innovations to make long-distance travel more comfortable, with airport lounges leading the way. Entry can be obtained in many ways:
Membership in an airline’s lounge network.
1. Complimentary lounge visits at international airports for high-level members of airline frequent flyer programs.
2. Credit card perks, such as for American Express Business Platinum cardholders who can get complimentary access to Delta lounges.
3. Priority Club membership offering access to several hundred lounges around the world.
4. Credit-card affiliated lounges such as American Express’s Centurion Lounges (and in 2021, Capitol One lounges).
5. Single-entry visits to the lounge of the airline you’re traveling on.