Time to fix reception

There is a disconcerting habit in business to regard the reception desk as an unimportant part of the business offering. If a receptionist is ill or you need to hire a new one, just send to the nearest temp agency. And yet, every person who walks in your door meets the receptionist first. If the post is combined – as it usually is in all but the largest organizations – with switchboard operator, nearly everyone who makes unsolicited contact with your business contacts the receptionist first.

Among countries, America has the worst reception imaginable. It is a combination of two things: badly run airports and appalling Homeland Security personnel.

Airports create an image for the country. And yet my experience flies in the face of all national stereotypes. Of the major western airports I have used, Kennedy airport in New York is the least commercial; Frankfurt is the least efficient; and Charles de Gaulle airport (Paris) serves the worst food. Are these really the images that America, Germany and France wish to project?

The problems of New York’s airports are well known and the solutions well understood. The airports are government run – by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. They could easily be sold, or their management contracted out.

Privatization of London’s airports has been a massive success. BAA – which owns several airports across the UK, including those of London – was privatized by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Since then efficiency and customer service have improved immeasurably. The company is a genuine world-beater, and now runs airports all over the world, including several in the US.

As check in times at airports grow longer, passengers get increasingly bored and frustrated. A few years ago at Kennedy I was being seen off by my (then) fiancée. There was nowhere outside the secure area where we could even sit down for a coffee. Customers, trapped on the premises for hours, and no-one has the entrepreneurial spirit to sell them coffee. This is in America, the most entrepreneurial country in the world. The range of restaurants and stores at the similar sized Heathrow airport in London is breathtaking.

Are we really to believe that Americans are somehow less able to run airports than the British? Is it not more likely that government employees around the world are spectacularly bad at running businesses? One question every voter should ask the candidates running for governor is “are you willing to sell off New York’s airports?”.

Airport security in America is equally bad – among the worst in the world. No-one seriously believes that the decision by the Bush administration to nationalize airport security did one thing to make America safer. But it did a great deal to make America less welcoming to visitors. The experience of standing in line for 90 minutes to have your passport checked is going to put off visitors from ever returning. If it is really necessary to fingerprint and photograph every visitor, then provide the staff to do it.

And all of this is so sad. Because once you have actually fought your way into the country, Americans are the politest and most welcoming people I know. American businesses are efficient, and eager to see customers return. If only the American government thought the same.

Quentin Langley is editor of www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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