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Civilized China vs. Barbaric America

March 5, 2008

With little fanfare, Beijing airport opened an additional new terminal last week. The terminal's 2-mile long concourse is divided into three sections and connected by a shuttle train. The addition will boost capacity at the airport to 82 million compared with the 52 million who used the airport last year.

The press reports that the existing terminal was overtaxed, and from my experience late last year, I would agree. But, even that terminal was much better than many U.S. airports. But Beijing Capital International Airport Co Ltd that operates the facility isn't comparing itself to LaGuardia or LAX. "[A]irport officials have admitted they have a way to go before being able to match Hong Kong, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur," reports Reuters.

Indeed, Hong Kong International was the cream of the crop in my travels that also included Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei and both Shanghai airports — Hong Qiao International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport. All of the airports were clean and spacious. And despite virtually all of the travel being international, there were few hassles and hold ups until we returned to the good old U.S. of A.

Air travel is exploding in China. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Chinese between now and 2020 will build 97 new airports. The only new airport on the drawing board in the U.S. that I can find is the Ivanpah airport to be located 30 miles south of Las Vegas. But it will be 2017, if or when that airport is complete. There is plenty of environmental opposition to disturbing the cacti and lizards in the area.

With 200 million passengers expected to take to the skies this year, up from 185 million last year, and even more in the future as incomes rise, China will need another 3,310 jetliners by 2026 according to Boeing, three times more than the 1,150 commercial aircraft that Chinese airlines operated last year, according to the WSJ.

We flew a variety of Chinese airlines while on our trip and the service was excellent. But, according to Reuters, "China's civil aviation regulator continues to berate airlines and airports for their poor treatment of passengers and is desperately trying to get them to raise standards ahead of the flood of visitors who will come for the Olympics."

Granted these folks aren't used to being roughed up by the likes of the TSA in the terminal, trying to maneuver luggage in and out of cramped hallways and dirty restrooms, and then settling in for some peanuts and a soft drink served by some union-protected 60 year-old stewardess or chubby, sweaty steward as is typical when flying in the U.S.

Chinese airlines have kept the quaint custom of only hiring young, attractive stewardesses, none larger than a size two, to wait on passengers. All are smartly dressed, very neat, and define politeness. There was a full meal offered on every flight we took, no matter how short.

We had to fill out declaration forms going in and out of China, and of course had to wait in line to go through immigration. But the process was relatively painless, until we returned to LAX. At least you can keep your shoes on and retain most personal items in Chinese and Hong Kong airports instead of running them through the scanner. And none of that 3-1-1 nonsense was being applied.

The new Beijing terminal three features 64 western and Chinese restaurants and 90 retail stores. There are a similar number of restaurants in all seven terminals at LAX, but more than half are places that primarily just sell coffee. LAX offers but half the number of retail stores and most are newsstands and gift shops.

But it is when you land at the international terminal, proceed to the cramped baggage claim area, and settle into a line with a couple hundred other jetlagged passengers, all with mountains of luggage, to go through customs that the dreariness of LAX engulfs you. The line hairpins in and around the luggage carousels, and when getting close to the customs agents, a glance to the right into their office, reveals pictures of a smiling George Bush and Michael Chertoff. If that sight doesn't make you queasy, watching customs agents slice open packages while the owners of those possessions look on in horror, will do the trick.

Last August, 20,000 international passengers were stranded at LAX when a malfunction on the fiber optic cables that support the system used to process international passengers malfunctioned. The system went down on a Saturday night and was restored at 11:45 p.m., however it took Customs officials until nearly 4 a.m. to clear the last of the backlogged travelers.

Many passengers who had already spent 10 or more hours on airplanes during their flights were kept on their planes for several hours after the international terminals used for processing arriving passengers reached capacity, according to News.com.

"That system allows our officers to make decisions on who we can allow to enter the United States," Mike Fleming, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, told the Associated Press. "You just don't know by looking at them."

Welcome home to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Even without computer malfunctions, making the mistake of declaring too much in foreign bought goodies, or telling the guard you're packing food, fruits or vegetables will lead to; the loss of your property, bureaucratic delays, or payment of duties to Uncle Sam. We flew in and out of Hong Kong three separate times on our trip and never experienced or witnessed these kinds of delays or thuggery.

Architect Norman Foster's website describes the new five-story Beijing terminal as, "The world's largest and most advanced airport building — not only technologically, but also in terms of passenger experience, operational efficiency and sustainability — Beijing Airport is welcoming and uplifting." LAX is just the opposite.

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