First impressions stick. That’s why we dress up for job interviews and first dates. That’s why salespeople practice handshakes and smiles.

Places also form impressions. Early experiences color our perception of a city. Positive experiences predispose us to focus on beauty and goodness. Negative experiences turn our attention to ugliness and iniquity.

It’s true that impressions can change over time. A second date can be much better (or worse) than the first. A city can grow on us.

As the old parable goes, we never step in the same river twice because the river moves – and we change. But if you step in a river once, you remember the soggy shoes forever.

Daniel K Inouye International airport sign.
The Daniel K. Inouye International Airport is not a pleasant experience for those arriving from abroad. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Shuttles And Systems

I thought of first impressions while arriving last week at Honolulu International Airport, now named for the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

I imagined what the experience of the airport must be for an international visitor, arriving in Hawaii for the first time.

It starts with fresh, humid air on the jetway. Then, a long walk to the shuttle.

The shuttle waiting area is all chipped paint and aging concrete. The shuttles look like they were commissioned a few decades ago. Their white paint is dirty with soot. And they move slowly in their quarter-mile loop from pickup to customs and back.

Last week, I waited 20 minutes for a shuttle. The attendants loaded shuttles through the front door only. Two shuttles were standing by, but the attendants insisted on loading the first shuttle to capacity before starting to load the others.

Imagine arriving in Hawaii, enjoying the fresh air for a few seconds, and then being crowded into an aging shuttle to ride all of 1 minute to your destination. That’s the experience.

This may seem like whining, and it is. But I’m not upset for my own sake; I’m upset for the way this experience reflects on Honolulu. In a city that depends on tourism, we owe it to ourselves to satisfy the customer.

Airport exit times may seem trivial. They’re not.

Cities like Tokyo and Osaka have streamlined airport exits, so passengers on short layovers can leave to shop and sightsee. The business generated by these customers is free money. And the convenience makes them more likely to pass through in the future.

Passengers arriving at the international terminal are forced to cram onto grungy old shuttle buses for the brief ride to customs. Sterling Higa/Civil Beat

Do Better, HNL

The Department of Transportation oversees the airport, and the governor is responsible for appointing the head of that department.

Unsurprisingly, the department receives frequent criticism. Renovations are slow, concession prices still amount to extortion ($4 for bottled water), and the airport lacks the amenities of top-tier airports (free lounges, fast Wi-Fi, entertainment options).

I’m not certain that transferring the airport to a private authority or corporation would help solve these issues. Given the state’s history with choosing vendors, we’d probably end up with a less accountable and equally inefficient outcome.

But current administrators can improve by placing themselves in the position of customers and retooling systems and procedures accordingly.

Rather than focusing on big-ticket items that they can sell to the press, like Gov. David Ige’s billion-dollar concourse, administrators should look for process improvements to reduce friction in the airport for customers.

Visitors from abroad get to briefly enjoy Honolulu’s usually great climate then experience the terminal’s less-than-inviting condition as they make their way to customs. Sterling Higa/Civil Beat

The shuttle is low-hanging fruit. Load multiple shuttles at a time and use both doors. Don’t wait until a shuttle is full; send it early. And examine whether a shuttle is the most efficient way to move people the last quarter mile of their journey.

Other airports use moving walkways and trams. We don’t need to copy them, but we should recognize that we’re in competition with them.

As the developing world becomes a more attractive travel destination, we no longer have a lock on visitors. Success in a competitive world will require constant improvement. Everything matters, even the paint.

Aesthetics may seem inconsequential, but they matter. A beautiful airport influences the way people perceive their vacation.

Beautifying our airport won’t require much. Let the POW! WOW! artists paint on the dozens of plywood construction barriers. Commission Kamea Hadar to cover all the walls of the airport with his wonderful murals.

Literally anything would be better than the chipped paint, bare plywood and aging shuttles that greet visitors today.

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