America in Decline?

I think of myself as a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist. I try to take the long view and think positively about people and the world. Lately it’s fashionable to talk about America’s decline, and there is plenty of evidence there to support the view. I live and work in Saigon about half the year and I’ve been traveling continually since 1965. I've seen a lot of changes over those years, and I've come to think that airports are pretty good metaphors for their countries.

Last Wednesday I took the red-eye from Saigon to Seoul, had an 11-hour layover in the airport and then continued on to Seattle. It was midnight when we left Saigon but the Illy espresso bar was open. The cafe was stylishly modern and the clientele a mix of Asian, European, and American types. It could have been anywhere. It's that way in most international airports these days. I can remember when Tan Son Nhat airport was a couple of one-story wooden buildings. Now it's a glass and marble high rise with luxury brand boutiques and world cuisine. It's been 36 years since the Vietnam War ended and the victorious communist North has fallen in line with the rest of the capitalist consumer world. I wonder what Uncle Ho would think.

In the last year I have been in more than a dozen airports: Saigon, Hanoi, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Pnom Penh, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Doha, Seoul, San Francisco, and Seattle—maybe more. If airports are any indication, America is a third world country. The buildings are rundown, the baggage systems are noisy, wait time is long, signage is confusing, moving walkways are infrequent, gates are distant, escalators are narrow, elevators are hard to find, and information services are nowhere to be found.

Take baggage carts. In the States they are small, poorly designed, cost $4, and can't be taken to most of the areas in the airport. Carts in other countries are sturdy, free, and can actually be used to get your luggage to the taxi stand or curb. Foreigners arriving in America don't understand. The cart dispensers require dollars or a credit card, the instructions are all in English, and there is no place to get either money or change. It's embarrassing.

In the Seattle airport the baggage carousels are so poorly designed that the bags have to be lifted up and out of a revolving tray. I once watched a half-dozen women try to get their bags over the lip of the carousel only to lose their grip and watch their bags continue around again. Most modern baggage delivery systems are flat so that the bags can slide off the belt—but not in the U.S.

If you want to see the best in airports, visit Seoul. It's beautiful, functional, and designed to meet travelers' needs. In the transit area, if you're connecting to another flight, there is a hotel. There are free showers, lounge chairs that let you rest comfortably, a massage service, airline lounges that charge only $20, and an array of all the usual luxury-brand and world-food choices. The boarding lounges are large and recognize that jumbo jets carry lots of passengers who need to be accommodated before and after the flight. The chairs in the lounges are cushioned and flat, so that passengers can stretch out if it's not crowded. I've never understood why U.S. airports are designed as if rest is a security concern. Are they afraid that vagrants and homeless people will take over? Maybe the homeless have a special way to pass through security. Why would you design the chairs in these areas to prevent people from being comfortable or in a worst case delay situation from lying down?

There's a lot to be said for building from the ground up. It was easier to rebuild in Europe after the war because it was from the ground up. True, it is easier to build a new airport than to remodel an existing one, but the light rail systems in Seattle and New York were built recently and neither one connects conveniently to the center of the airport. In Seattle, light rail passengers disembark and have to walk with their luggage through the parking garage to get to the actual airport building.

As I watch the ridiculous Republican candidate debates and hear them all talk about how America is the greatest country in the world, I wonder how many of them have had to navigate on their own through the world’s airports and to compare what we have to what the world standard is these days. If they did, they would see an America that doesn’t conform to their rhetoric. In fact, our airports are more than just a metaphor for a society in decline: they are the decline—or at least a part of it.


Jack Bernard’s airplane experience began as a Marine Corps fighter pilot. That was followed by a brief legal career and then back into aviation as a Pan Am pilot. He has lived in France, Germany, and Vietnam. He and his wife transit many airports traveling for work and adventure cycling.

Category: Airports

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