September 17, 2010 10:22 pm

Let’s play ‘Guess where I am?’

Gate agents screaming for transfer passengers, sniffer dogs and disorganised immigration officers greet travellers in this airport terminal

It’s been a while since we played Saturday morning quiz on this page so, in the spirit of back to school and sharpening one’s wits, let’s play a round of “Guess where I am?” I’ll start by giving you a clue.

I’ve just come off an airliner and it’s absolute pandemonium. There are gate agents screaming for transfer passengers, there are sniffer dogs, there are loads of immigration officers and there’s a general sense of disorganisation. My fellow passengers look bewildered and flustered after their eight-hour, 45-minute flight from Frankfurt, and there’s a lot of huffing and puffing as we’re divided up into groups of arriving passengers and “connectors”.

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Tyler Brûlé

The holding pen where we’ve been told to wait is too small to accommodate a full jumbo-load of passengers and those of us at the front of this mass are scolded by security staff and told to move back until our bus arrives to take us to the main terminal. At the same moment, a special bus on stilts pulls up in front of us and, just as we’re about to board, a delegation from an obscure German state is ushered in front and boards the bus first. At first it looks like we’re going be able join the junior ministers in their socks and sandals and saggy French-fry style moustaches, but the doors abruptly close and the delegation rolls away across the tarmac to the distant terminal. Any guesses where I am yet? OK, here’s your second clue.

When our shuttle bus finally arrives, we all board a vehicle that has long benches down either side but no one wants to sit on them. It’s clear that many passengers know the drill, so they stand at the entrance, slowing the boarding process and ignoring the calls for them to move down the vehicle and take their seats. This causes considerable grumbling, and in the process a sweet German granny takes a tumble over a wheely-case and this gives way to a lecture about inconsiderate businessmen. When we finally pull away from the terminal, we pass aircraft from South African Airways, Scandinavian, Qatar Airways and Air France. Care to guess where this is? No? All right, here’s the final clue.

In the immigration hall there’s a corral for citizens of the country I’ve just arrived in and a much larger maze for everyone else. The citizens’ line has about 200 people waiting to be processed, while the other pen has more than 1,000 passengers waiting to be interrogated.I reluctantly join the latter queue and try to gauge how long it will take to reach the processing point. I study the scene for about five minutes and reckon I’m in for at least an hour’s wait. When passengers from a Jeddah flight are escorted to the front of the queue, I quickly revise my estimate to 90 minutes.

As the line inches along, I pass a screen showing that flights have just touched down from Copenhagen, Doha, Paris, London and Geneva. On the wall there’s an annoying poster full of smiling faces and a cacophony of typography welcoming us in various languages but – as most of us have now been in line for close to an hour and a half – no one’s feeling particularly welcome.

When I finally reach the front and am told what booth to stand in front of, I have to remind myself not to say anything smart as I’m likely to be thrown into detention and escorted back to my Lufthansa aircraft. OK, it’s time to make your guess. Where in the world am I?

You might think I’ve rocked up in some shambolic banana republic or poorly managed police state, but I’m actually at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport late on a Sunday afternoon. As I’m about to walk up to the booth for inspection, a voice booms over the public address system with an urgent bulletin – “Attention all officers, attention all officers, anyone who has not signed up for overtime today, I repeat, anyone who did not sign up for overtime can now leave their post”. In a flash a series of officers pack up their stamps and take their super-size slurpy cups and waddle off duty. The 1,000-plus people in line just stare in amazement.

As I approach the desk, I feel like giving the young gentleman a lecture about how bad this whole performance is for Brand USA – particularly on top of a whole week of television reports about the new fee that visitors will have to pay to get a visa and how these funds will be used to create a campaign to encourage more tourism to the US. I want to ask him if he (and his bosses not far away in the District of Columbia) think a 90-minute wait in a dumpy airport is any way to welcome the world and if his department is really that interested in having people visit the US.

I’m all ready to vent but I hold my tongue because I don’t want to be carted off to the naughty room (a place I know very well) and given the third degree because I’m a journalist travelling without a special visa (a requirement for all of my sort visiting the US). I smile at the officer. He nods and asks the purpose of my visit. I tell him I’m in town for a party. “Well, you’ve come to the right place,” he says. Clearly.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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