In the developing world, urban life is a Hieronymus Bosch-like vision of tangled traffic, crumbling infrastructure, overcrowding, and crippling economic inefficiencies. The population of Vietnam is 85 million souls, of which roughly 84.7 million are driving motorbikes through the center of Ho Chi Minh City right now. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the streets leading down to the picturesque Mekong River waterfront are lined with uncollected garbage.
But the airports—ah, the airports—in these poor countries are First World havens, oases of cleanliness, serenity, and order. The United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, presents the flip side of this paradox. Outside the airports, it's a model of calm and prosperity. But step inside, and conditions instantly degenerate. Citizens queue in interminable lines and suffer humiliating treatment at the hands of surly authorities. In the first nine months of 2007, only 73.2 percent of flights at the top 32 U.S. airports arrived on time, and one of every 138 checked bags was misplaced, according to the government. Last month your columnist passed through five domestic airports and four in Asia, where I participated in a German Marshall Fund economic journalism fellowship. The great irony? Flying in the world's wealthiest nation is a far less civilized and dignified experience than traveling by air in some of the world's poorest countries.
American airports have become modern-day Thunderdomes. Faced with the prospects of entering terrifying gauntlets, travelers take evasive action—packing a single suit for a five-day business trip, flying out of satellite airports, booking 6 a.m. flights. But even those who buy first-class tickets can't avoid the manifold indignities: the forced removal of shoes, the confiscation of aerosol deodorant, and countless hours spent stewing on runways.
By contrast, at the airports in South Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia that I passed through, lines moved quickly, and belts and shoes remained firmly on. Not a single bottle of saline solution was confiscated. And no 6-year-old was pulled aside for further scrutiny. The flights generally left on time, unhampered by the runway traffic jams so common at LAX. At Seoul's Incheon International Airport, which opened in March 2001 and handles about 26 million passengers a year, the glamour of international travel still reigns. It's like one of those highly amenitized condo developments languishing on the market in Florida, chockablock with high-end retail outlets like Ferragamo, Chanel, and Burberry.
The airport's transit hotel offers weary visitors a clean, modern, small room. The price: $36 for four hours. And the food? No contest. When I was stuck for a few hours last month in Charleston, S.C., an area known for its cuisine, the only provisions on offer were a hot dog and a single Caesar salad. Incheon airport has no Cinnabons. But its food courts dish up hearty udon noodles and shrimp fried rice. At the bar in Hanoi's Noi Bai airport, travelers noshed on meat steamed in banana leaves and salty banana chips.
There's a degree to which this First World-Third World conundrum makes sense. Crowded U.S. airports are a curse of prosperity. So many Americans can afford to fly, and the industry has developed to such an extent, that air travel is a form of mass transit. (On the flight I took to Charleston, a guy clomped down the aisle and charmingly instructed me to "move your shit" before loudly plunking his tattooed body down.) In the first eight months of 2007, U.S. airlines carried 522.8 million passengers. But in impoverished Southeast Asia, flying remains a pipe dream for the overwhelming majority of residents. Noi Bai airport in all of 2006 saw about 3.5 million passengers, about the same number that passed through Atlanta's Hartsfield airport in August 2007.
The gap in wages between the United States and Asia also contributes to the difference in experience. At Phnom Penh International, I clocked the time it took to deplane, apply for a visa, get my luggage, and go through customs: eight minutes. The 13 employees who speedily processed my passport through a bureaucratic assembly line were just part of the abnormally large (3,500-strong) work force for this small airport. In the United States, where labor is considerably more expensive, airports are chronically understaffed. In fact, the ratio of passengers to full-time airline employees rose from about 60-to-1 in 2001 to more than 90-to-1 in 2006, as the New York Times recently reported. Upon arriving at Kennedy, I had to wait a good 20 minutes at passport control because there were only nine agents on duty.
Asian airports also highlight another dichotomy of the global economy. Countries that never had pervasive landline telephone systems frequently enjoy better wireless telephone coverage than here. Just so, Cambodia and Vietnam are only now getting around to building their aviation infrastructures, but they're purchasing state-of-the-art products rather than updating legacy systems.
You're more likely to find brand-new jets on rapidly expanding carriers like Asiana and Vietnam Airlines than on US Airways. To be sure, investments in U.S. air-traffic control and airports are long overdue. But the short-term miseries of the American flier are a function of our nation's long-term success. Given the choice of the hassle-free air travel combined with the hassle-filled life of the Cambodian and Vietnamese peoples—to whom the second half of the last century was so cruel—I'll choose the surly TSA guard and the three-hour wait at La Guardia.