Ask the Pilot

A filthy lobby, sullen-faced employees, no place to sit, and a vague sense of danger all add up to the World's Worst Airport.

Published May 25, 2007 10:50AM (EDT)

Well, I found it. I didn't want to find it, but I knew it was out there somewhere, and since I travel a lot, I suppose it was destined to happen. Suddenly there it was, my home for an agonizing seven hours in the middle of the night.

What I found was the World's Worst Airport. I introduce to you the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport, in Dakar, Senegal. There are plenty of people with travel résumés more impressive than mine, but I'd have a hard time believing there's a more awful big-city airport anywhere on earth than this one.

In the past I've been pleasantly surprised by the caliber of terminals in the most unexpected places, from the down-home charm of Roanoke, Va., to the classical Sudanese architecture of Timbuktu. Imagine, for a moment, the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Is this what you pictured? How about Santiago, Chile? Not that you'd expect anything horrible in Chile, but Arturo Merino Benítez International is one of the nicest facilities I've seen anywhere.

Maybe in your mind the name "Dakar" carries a certain mystique, conjuring up thoughts of Saint-Exupéry, who flew the treacherous Aéropostale mail route between Dakar and Toulouse, France, in the late '20s. His first book, "Courier Sud" ("Southern Mail"), was written in Dakar. Decades later, Concorde was a regular visitor, stopping for fuel as part of Air France's service between Paris and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

That was then.

I'd arrived in the late afternoon after the long drive from the Sine-Saloum delta region, four hours south of the capital, where'd I'd spent two days. With my flight (Alitalia) not leaving until after midnight, the plan was to hunker down at the airport and save the cost of a hotel. Besides, I like airports, and can always find something to do: grab some food; stake out a view and watch planes; visit the various airline counters and fatten up my timetable collection. But this time, the minute the taxi pulled away, I knew I'd made the wrong choice.

Getting from sidewalk to terminal is the first chore, and hardly an easy task owing to the throngs of cabdrivers, touts and self-declared "porters" blocking the way. No rush, however, because once you're inside there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. The tiny central lobby is a filthy, two-story chamber soaked in greasy fluorescent light, ringed with a series of kiosks and counters, several of them mysteriously unmarked. Sullen-faced employees sit idly behind the partitions. Some of them are sleeping. To the right is the check-in hall, a slightly nicer space but off-limits until two hours prior to departure. To the left, on the other side of immigration, is the dreary arrivals lounge and baggage claim. Note to landing passengers: If you have to pee, do so on the aircraft prior to disembarking. There are no lavatories in the arrivals area save for a miserable, closetlike latrine in the far corner that doubles as a mosquito-breeding station.

There are people all around, but few of them are passengers. They are touts, hawkers, vagrants, drifters, thieves -- a melee of dubiously intended hangers-around, each of them eyeing you with the stubborn, languid glare of a vulture. Set against a back wall, the sole ATM is flanked by armed guards, whose duties are particularly effortless, since the machine doesn't work.

There is nowhere to sit, no seats. Which really is all right because the worst thing you can do is cease moving. The approximately 5-to-1 scoundrel-to-passenger ratio ensures you'll never remain unmolested for more than a few seconds. The moment you stop, somebody is hovering over your shoulder, mumbling incoherently. Brush him away, and he is instantly replaced by a man asking if you'd like to buy a plastic watch or a counterfeit phone card. Well, "asking" isn't quite the right word. His demeanor suggests you are required to buy a watch or a phone card. Resistance is futile, and in the honored tradition of third-world hustlers, he is a man of many trades. Do you need any souvenir trinkets? Do you need to exchange currency? Do you need a hotel room; it's just up the road and his "cousin" is the "owner"? No? OK, then maybe you're the giving sort and would be generous enough to simply hand over some money, along with a few of your clothes? You know, a gift, a small cadeau -- to invoke that ubiquitous, reckless plea that floats about French-speaking Africa like a desperate wail. Your sneakers ... what are those, New Balance? "Yes, you can give me those please, thank you. I can have your sneakers now. Cadeau? Cadeau?"

Avoid eye contact. Keep walking.

The requirement to stay in motion is especially vexing because the terminal is so small. One becomes a human pinball, wandering from the departure checkpoint, back along the kiosks again, past the nonfunctional ATM and on toward the dirty staircase that leads to a second-floor arcade. At the top of the stairs is a sign with an arrow marked "observation deck," but don't get your hopes up. If it ever existed in the first place, it is now blockaded by a corridor of stalls hawking animal carvings and cheap souvenir jewelry.

The upper-level balcony is quieter and less crowded than the dungeon below, but hiding up here is forbidden. No sooner did I put my bag down and lean against the railing than a security guard sent me downstairs again. No loitering.

There aren't any signs to indicate it, but a pair of restrooms are located in a basement annex beneath the main lobby. The men's room has troughs, not urinals. I'd gone down to change into a new set of clothes -- never an easy proposition in a bathroom -- and had my backpack propped on the floor, partly unzipped, when a man approached. He'd been peeing at the trough a few feet away. He smiled, pointed into the bag, and in broken English inquired as to which items I might be eager to part with. "Cadeau?"

It doesn't need to be this way. People do many things at airports: They eat, they shop, they bid farewell to loved ones. But more than anything, they wait. Airports are, if nothing else, waiting stations. Serving that purpose shouldn't be a difficult or expensive task, especially in a country where overall expectations aren't high. A modicum of cleanliness and functionality -- somewhere to sit, something to look at, a bit of peace and quiet -- will get the job done. Heck, string up a tent, give us a patch of grass to sit on and maybe a stand selling drinks, and the majority of us would be perfectly happy. At DKR, one finds almost nothing useful, comfortable or welcoming. There is only squalor, an unnerving sense of confinement, and to some extent danger.

The only option for solace is the terminal restaurant, located up a second set of stairs leading above and behind the check-in hall. To find it, I needed to step over three semiconscious derelicts and force my way through a gaggle of chain-smoking Chinese businessmen.

Finally, seated at a rickety table, I was free to relax -- with a view of the apron and a decent meal to boot. Surprise of surprises, my meal may have been the tastiest I'd had anywhere in Senegal. Around me, the tables were packed with boisterous tourists, downing steaks and offering up toast after toast to who knows what, clinking their goblets of wine. The wine seemed a bit incongruous, all things considered, but what do you expect in a former French colony? The waiters were polite and gregarious, and the room held a strange, muggy sort of dignity. For obvious reasons, I didn't want to leave and ordered a second course to extend my stay.

Out the window, I watched an Air France 777 loading up for its overnight run to Paris, its white hull gleaming beneath the tarmac spotlights. A Cape Verdean commuter plane came and went, as did a South African Airways A340, making its middle-of-the-night fuel stop between Johannesburg, South Africa, and New York. In the distance, in a disused hangar, I spied a battered, cannibalized A300 in the faded green decals of Air Afrique. Once the biggest and proudest airline on the continent (with a nearly perfect safety record spanning four decades), Air Afrique has been defunct since 2001.

In an article a few years back, set at Kennedy airport in New York, I described the thrill of watching an Air Afrique jet preparing to depart one evening for Dakar. "What I wouldn't give," I wrote, "to be on that flight, sandwiched in the back of the overbooked Airbus with all these luggage-laden Africans."

So now here I am, and I'm checking my watch every five minutes, because how I cannot wait to be in the back of an overbooked Airbus ... getting the hell out!

Which is no indictment of Senegal. I enjoyed my brief stay -- Goree Island, the delta and its island villages, the unworldly vistas of baobab trees. But it certainly is an indictment of Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport.

Critiquing airports is a relative thing. It's all about expectations, which vary widely from country to country, city to city. I wouldn't be so down on Dakar if I hadn't assumed it would be better. Senegal is a developing country, yes, but plenty of nations just as poor, or more so, have built reasonably pleasant facilities. Dakar is one of Africa's largest and most important cities, and a port of call for several prestigious airlines (whatever that means anymore). A million and a half passengers pass through here every year. For the sake of national pride, it should convey a little dignity instead of sullying the memory of Léopold Sédar Senghor, who died in 2001. A poet, philosopher and leader of African independence, he was also the country's first president.

But who am I to judge? As someone who is happy to hang out in airports even when he doesn't have to, my opinions are grossly, and maybe perversely, biased. Regulars to this column already know of my fondness for New York's JFK, perennial loser in just about every travelers poll ever taken, but a place I often romanticize for its history, tarnished glamour and cornucopia of exotic liveries. I'm strange that way. (I have a thing for Miami too -- a salsafied JFK, similarly loathed by travelers -- for the same reasons.)

So next time, you do the talking. Readers are hereby invited to share their opinions on what are the best, worst and weirdest airports across the globe. It's not a poll, per se, but the most colorful and pithy submissions will be published in a follow-up column to run in early June. To be considered, blurbs must be 100 words or less. Please put the airport name and, if known, its three-letter code in the subject line. Send your letters here.

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For a photo tour of the author's trip to Senegal, click here.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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