The fear of transiting through the States stems from the fact, that the USA does not accept the concept of “In Transit”. This being the case you have to go through Immigration Control along with US-bound passengers, and acquire a visa waiver (ESTA). If you have not been able to issue a boarding pass for your connecting flight before departure on the first flight (e.g. if you are on a through ticket using the 2 airlines rather than 2 separate tickets), you will have to go to the airline check-in area and queue again. This can be extremely time-consuming, especially on the return journey.
The different accounts are not all as awful as you may expect, read on to find out more...
• In transit in Atlanta.
When travelling to Central America I generally try to avoid going through `The States’. Firstly there’s the worry of the minimum connection time, then the grilling from the immigration officer; not that I have anything to hide but I’m often made to feel like I do!
So, it was with some trepidation that I arrived into Atlanta airport to change planes for my connecting flight to San Jose in Costa Rica. I did the usual fast paced walk, stroke run to get to immigration, but... to my amazement... no queues.
Instead, I was confronted with a public area, neatly organised with self checking machines where you scan your own passport, look into the camera for a quick snap and then get your fingerprints scanned on a virtual inkpad.
Ok, there were some confused faces at the machines (a bit like the self check-out at M&S), but on the whole people were getting on with it and in some cases even enjoying it! After this process you are presented with a print out which you then take to the officer in person who looks at you, looks at the slip and says `Have a nice day’. No need to collect onward baggage if you’re on the same airline either leaving you more time to sample southern hospitality with a craft beer in the Sourjones bar!
Product Manager, Rafe Stone
• In transit in Houston.
I flew from out of calm, collected and newly opened London Heathrow Terminal 2 airport to Cancún in Mexico via Houston, ‘The States’.
Be prepared for an early start, the first flight (and one that gets you in at a reasonable time into Mexico, just after 6pm local time) leaves London around 9am in the morning - as you can imagine this involved quite an early wake up and a mad dash to the airport!
Once in Terminal 2 (Heathrow), manual check-in and back drop went smoothly. My suitcase was appropriately tagged with a ‘One Stop’ luggage label and I was told it would arrive in Cancún. Then, onto small queues at both Passport Control and Security which allowed for plenty of shopping time. N.B. John Lewis has opened its first shop within an airport terminal – not that I found myself stocking up on cushions and kitchen ware!
Boarding was smooth; ten hours later I arrived in Houston having caught up on all the latest blockbusters!
In Houston, I filed off the plane and headed towards Passport Control/Immigration along with other passengers who had arrived from other various destinations. Despite the numerous rows, the queues were long and moved slowly. When I reached the front of the queue, I found myself face to face with quite a punchy American Immigration Office asking why I was ‘only transiting’ through Houston and not staying to visit. Then I was directed off, via baggage reclaim despite not having a bag to collect and towards another round of Passport Checks and Security. Naturally the Security is much more thorough in the States and therefore more time consuming.
Having made it through into the terminal, I was disappointed to find only a few and impractical shops (no pharmacy or WHSmith/newsagent for example). Instead you are greeted by a waft of fast food outlets and vending machines. With little else to do, I sat at my allocated gate for the remaining hour or slow, beginning to feel quite tired. Also, worth noting that this next flight although considerably shorter was packed. Finally I arrived in Cancún, scooped up my luggage and headed out into Cancún, gone 6pm (local time!)
Press & Marketing Executive, Abigail St Quinton
• In transit in Miami.
Miami. A city regarded as both glamorous and seedy. But the glitzy side of its image does not extend to its airport.
On my recent visit US Immigration officers admitted that their computer system is frequently offline – as it was on this occasion - which means that the average 5mins necessary to process each passenger at Immigration Control extends to 20. Airline check-in desks are equally slow and under-manned – as few as 3 staff checking in a full load for a jumbo jet, all passengers seemingly travelling with the entire contents of their house.
The following is a guide to surviving Miami based on my recent experience flying BA/AA in the high season when flights are all full.
• Before departure, print off the receipt and reference number of your ESTA. If you don’t and the US Immigration computer system is down, you may be seriously delayed.
• Fill in the Advanced Passenger Information fields on your BA booking in “Manage My Booking” on the BA website. For destination in the USA insert the address of Miami airport (available on the internet); without it you cannot complete the API and print off your BA boarding pass.
• 24hrs before departure, print off your BA boarding pass. If you have a separate booking for AA you can print the connecting flight boarding pass too. If you have a combined ticket you may not be able to do so (the advantage of the combined ticket is that the airlines are responsible for the connections).
• Upon arrival at Miami airport, deplane briskly and proceed as quickly as your dignity allows you to Immigration. It’s a long way - 10 minutes’ walk - via escalators and a sky train. Do not pause to go to the loo (the toilets are, to put it kindly, significantly retro.) Do not say politely to your fellow passenger “After you”. When you get to Immigration (there are 79 desks) you will join the uni-queue. Towards the front the concept of uni-queue is abandoned and it is a free for all (though on busy days a charming lady may be barking orders – ignore her at your peril). The shortest queues are at the furthest desks, 65-79 – push your way through. Have your ESTA receipt handy. Make sure you have filled in a Customs declaration form.
• If you are travelling BA/AA you should have been able to check your bags through to your final destination with an orange tag put on in the UK. If so, you will not need to collect your bag in Miami, in spite of advice to the contrary from local officials. Double check with the BA rep in Baggage Reclaim if you like.
• Proceed to Connecting Flights for AA. You will arrive at a single desk AA where you can check in for the connecting flight if necessary and go straight through Security and on to the departure gate.
• When departing Latin America for your flight back to Miami, try to obtain both boarding passes (see above).
• Follow the same procedure on arrival in Miami through Immigration as per arrival, but then…
• …because your first flight is on AA, you WILL have to reclaim your baggage in the Miami reclaim hall, carry it with you to Connecting Flights (follow the Queue to the left marked “AA, BA and Iberia”. You will have to be proactive and ask an official where to dump your bag: the area is unsigned.
• If you have your BA boarding pass you can proceed through security to the gate.
• If not, go back to the Departure lounge and head to the BA area in Concourse F (an official may tell you confidently that it is in concourse J. Ignore this misplaced confidence).
• There are no BA automatic check-in machines so you have to queue for “check-in” (not “Bag-drop” as you have already given up your bags) along with all the other passengers and their houses. If you are running short of time, approach a BA agent directly with your plea. The kindly agent I spoke to was sympathetic and hinted at “flexibility”, although this did not go down well with the queuing lady passenger in front of whom I had inserted myself.
• Proceed to Departures and go through the security queuing rigmarole. Make sure that your passport has been checked.
• By now you have lost the will to live or at the least acquired a headache. Be warned there are no Boots-like shops at Miami just one small booth in Arrivals at Concourse D selling aspirin and cold cures.
Good luck. I am still waiting for my bags…but that’s another story.
Client Information Manager, Claire Milner