It is now easy to travel to most of the world’s major cities from America. New international airports in major cities like Paris, Bangkok, Delhi, and Tokyo welcome visitors from all over the world. Hong Kong’s airport is a mid-sized U.S. airport like Dulles, and its visitors and tourists enjoy the fast service of the United States along with amenities that no other country offers (such as the large number of bilingual boardroom attendants who will instruct arriving travelers in American-Chinese and English about business and personal matters).
We do not seem to remember that the quality of the traveling experience is in the hands of local airports and airlines. Passengers are advised about prices, travel times, discounts, delays, and other information. As a result, average Americans are willing to pay fares for air travel that are far above today’s average incomes (based on current consumer prices).
Unfortunately, other countries’ airports are far more subpar. Shanghai’s Air China, for example, offers every imaginable service. There are regular flights to 90 Chinese cities as well as flights to New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, complete with dinner meals, alcohol service, airport retail outlets, waiters, and so on. During business trips in Shanghai, I saw many American employees sitting on the airport floor eating snacks and occasionally enjoying beverages as they waited for their passengers to arrive, instead of meeting with clients and colleagues. Complaints about Shanghai’s airport flow from the flight attendants of a Western-flagged air carrier who have complained to the local press about “overworking” by its workers, as well as complaints from German diplomats who said their citizens were being “terrorized” on the Shanghai-Duisburg-Tegucigalpa flight.
In Shanghai, they say, “If you want to speak with a Singaporean, tell them that, but give them Singaporean options.” By contrast, Air China, which has been justly praised for offering a high-quality service, has foreign diplomats insulted as they shuffle along the Frankfurt–Shanghai–Shanghai-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore Airlines flight, looking for seats that can fit their luggage.
It seems that experience teaches these diplomats the right lessons. Western diplomats flying to China, where the government is able to stifle free speech and expression and where dissent is illegal, are advised to remain under cover and accept the lowest possible compensation while avoiding the country’s most impoverished cities. And the diplomatic outpost in Beijing offered to host their ambassador and staff has been closed for over a year.
Even in the more developed countries of Europe, passengers are often saddled with poor airport service and pricey flights. Just across the border from Prague, there is a small airport only a few miles from a major international airport. For a few days, the two airports do the same thing. This goes on year after year. The main goal seems to be that no one dares criticize these nearby airport hubs. Our countrymen ride on Air Canada and Avianca flights to their holiday destinations in the Caribbean. When they get off of those flights and are stranded in Prague because of stormy weather in the United States, the Czech government demands that U.S. Embassy officials offer a deep discount for a new flight to Kingston.
Service and amenities, in a civilized and civilized world, matter. At the same time, the quality of air travel and its location should not be based on which country’s airport is the closest to an American citizen’s house. Our foreign policy leaders (and our home-grown friends and diplomats) are going to have to pressure their government counterparts to be sure that U.S. diplomatic facilities in their countries can be open, open, and open, and that anyone who has questions about a U.S. diplomatic post can talk to someone there about the bad services they receive. That is probably the only solution to the frequent problems of airport service when Americans travel abroad.
John J. Pitney Jr. is a Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of “Fast Track to Diplomacy: How U.S. Ambassadors Achieve Success