January 31, 2014 6:36 pm

Air rage, on the ground

‘Warm words of welcome are of little use if the message doesn’t trickle down to airports’

Spend a little time watching certain news channels and you’ll soon notice which advertisers are bankrolling these operations. The recent surge in Africa-focused programming on some channels has much to do with various financial institutions in the continent wanting to promote their names and slogans globally. (One friend at a news channel says that large ad spending is often linked to the arrival in the office of recent graduates related to banks’ board members.)

Other big spenders on news channels are nations hoping to shore up more inward investment, attract more tourists and generally improve their global standing. Russia’s rail network is advertising to show that it has got its logistics sussed – it’s also gently suggesting that you might want take the train rather than fly by Aeroflot (probably a sensible suggestion) between Moscow and St Petersburg.

Image managers for the government in Ulan Bator want viewers not only to consider Mongolia for opportunities in the natural resources sector but for service-sector functions, too – hence tracking shots across offices filled with banks of trading screens.

And then there are the thousands of gallons of fuel used to power the helicopters deployed to capture the modern architecture and dizzying light displays in Baku. Azerbaijan wants the world to know that it’s building a modern metropolis, working with the best architectural engineers. Squint, and you might be in Cannes, Bodrum or Barcelona.

Other countries simply issue press releases or have their ministers make off-the-cuff remarks to underline their brand ambitions. Recently, we’ve heard much from Washington about how the US wants to boost tourism numbers and that the country is open for business. Warm words of welcome are inviting – though of little use if the message doesn’t trickle down to the people staffing the nation’s airports.

Fortunately, there’s no history of violent behaviour in my family. If there was, I might have been writing this wearing an orange jumpsuit in a Texas correctional facility, after being driven to breaking point by the immigration queue at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Most seasoned travellers will know that entering the US (even as citizens) is rarely a pleasant experience and can, at any moment, veer off the rails if an officer has only managed to eat half his or her Subway sandwich for breakfast, is over-or-under caffeinated or simply can’t follow a visitor’s accent. We wince, endure it, and hope that it’s over as quickly as possible.

However, where the entry process can go really wrong, at least for a certain group of travellers, is as a result of the video loop that plays on monitors around the holding pen for fresh arrivals. This annoying film treats weary travellers to a cheesy montage of everyday Americans “welcoming” us to their country: the gap-toothed child, the newlyweds, the recent immigrants on their front lawn. All want to extend a welcome to their little patch of the US.

As the video continues to loop, a line of passengers from one Boeing 747 and two Boeing 777s refuses to budge, and another two officers head off for their breaks – leaving just three people to process everyone. It’s then that I start to wonder what might happen if I headbutted the screens or cut to the front of the queue and asked the supervisor if he thinks he really is overseeing a “welcoming” tableau.

Instead, I stay quiet and simply make a mental note that the US does not appear very interested in attracting tourism and doesn’t feel terribly open to business. I also add a footnote that it would be relatively simple to improve the situation and to get tourist and investment dollars flowing in.

Some 96 hours later, there’s another, quite different queue at Auckland airport. This time it’s the security check as I leave New Zealand. The line is moving swiftly, the X-ray machines are staffed by smiling, jolly Kiwis and, before you know it, the process is complete.

No one asks for shoes or belts to be removed and, when one bag is pulled over for further examination, it is all dealt with professionally, swiftly and in a friendly manner. “Did you enjoy your stay?” asks a sweet woman in her early sixties. “You certainly got the weather – gorgeous out there.” I confirm that indeed the weather has been great and also tell her what a pleasure it is flying in and out of Auckland. “Thank you,” she says with a smile. “It’s not just about how you arrive but how you feel when you leave.”

New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, might want to relay this branding tip to his golf partner Barack Obama next time they hit the course in Hawaii.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at ft.com/brule

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Letters in response to this column:

No one forces Tyler to travel to the US / From Mr Theo Rose

Tyler should fly to US via Ireland / From Mr Val Heavey

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