Ask the pilot

From free Wi-Fi, great haircuts and massage service to two-mile walks, aggressive loiterers and $10 burritos: Readers name the best, worst and weirdest airports in the world.


Patrick Smith
June 15, 2007 2:50PM (UTC)

The media has a way of simplifying things. The scheme to "blow up" New York's Kennedy airport, for example. How exactly does one "blow up" a 5,000-acre complex -- complete with 30 miles of road, nine miles of runway, nine terminals and dozens of other buildings? (You might remember Ahmed Ressam, the would-be millennium bomber, snagged at the U.S.-Canada border in 1999 and later convicted for planning to "blow up" Los Angeles International.) Short of setting off a nuclear weapon, I suggest it can't be done. Though I'm unsure who feels the greater disappointment: the alleged conspirators or the millions of travelers who openly detest Kennedy airport. If I'm interpreting the polls correctly, it's the opinion of 99 percent of fliers that for the entire place to disappear in a mushroom cloud would be about the best thing that could happen to it.

That's in terrible taste, I know, and a belligerent knock against what is arguably the most historic major airport in the world. If you're into that sort of thing -- of the 41 million people who pass through JFK each year, I reckon a scant few are smitten with nostalgia. How many people milling around Terminal 3 have any idea that that very building was once the storied Pan Am Worldport, the spot where sheiks and stars and dignitaries once waved to crowds before alighting from silver-skinned propliners and 707s? Not many, save for a few employees and enthusiasts like me. That's unfortunate, but not exactly startling, what with Kennedy's unnavigable sprawl, intense crowds, endless security lines, delays and, as anyone who has ever ridden the customs hall escalators in Terminal 3 can attest, some of the most dilapidated facilities in America.

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Though at least it isn't Charles de Gaulle. Say what you might about JFK, it's got history, a couple of bright new concourses, and pleasant views of Jamaica Bay. That concrete oubliette on the outskirts of Paris, on the other hand, deserves a category of shame all its own. Aeroports de Paris has pretensions of turning de Gaulle into Europe's largest and most impressive hub. Already it's the second busiest, but to wring such standing from a place so confoundingly disjointed, dank and just plain ugly will be a challenge for the ages. They should start by putting up signs -- signs, at an airport, is that somehow too un-French? -- that actually direct people to the places they need to go, like to the gates, baggage claim and adjoining terminals. Even de Gaulle's rail link -- good luck finding the station -- if you'll pardon my French, sucks.

Perhaps de Gaulle and not its colonial cousin in Dakar, Senegal, whose wretchedness got this conversation started, should take the prize for the single worst airport on the planet, if only because we expect better from European planners and architects. (Then again, it was the Europeans who gave us the Airbus A380, the worst-looking piece of industrial design ever conceived by human beings.)

Truth be told, it's pretty hard to find an airport that is completely and wholly awful. A more useful criterion focuses on specific terminals. Especially in America, where you often find a collection of chronologically mismatched buildings, each with different amenities and levels of comfort, it's not necessarily fair to praise or vilify an entire airport based on one small section -- not any more than it's fair to judge somebody's home by virtue of a single, unrenovated kitchen or bathroom.

But never mind what I think. I promised to open this up to readers, and so here goes. What follows are the more pithy and colorful of several hundred submitted opinions on the best, worst and strangest airports -- or terminals -- around the globe.

Relatively few of you, it turns out, had much to say about JFK or Charles de Gaulle. The raspberries, as you'll see, fell mostly on London's Heathrow. As for places that people actually like, you expressed a fondness for small, easy-access terminals. No surprise there. My only disappointment is that nobody brought up the supposedly gorgeous little airport in Sukothai, Thailand. I've never been, but with its open-air pavilions, ponds and even a flower-fringed runway, Sukothai is purportedly one of the loveliest terminals anywhere. I haven't the room to include them, but special thanks to those who submitted photographs: Mark Prystajecky for shots of the museum-like façade at Lviv, Ukraine; Ali Hammoud for the hilarious welcome sign at Monrovia, Liberia; and Lesley Egbert's snapshot of the psychedelic beehive atrium at Abu Dhabi.

Letters have been edited for space and clarity. The italicized comments are mine.

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THE GOOD

Changi Airport, Singapore (SIN)

"Free movie theater, cellphone chargers, lounge chairs with big-screen TVs, quiet areas. Free PlayStation terminals. The best airport I have ever spent time in."

"The best airport is Singapore's Changi, for the following reasons: excellent transit hotel; massage service; excellent food; nonstop flights to dozens of countries; free movies; subway connection to the entire island; cheap taxis; free city tour; the friendliest immigration officers in the world; flower gardens and koi ponds."

And a swimming pool. We'll skip the many other letters raving about how wonderful Changi is. The airport is as much beloved -- or possibly more so -- as its hometown carrier, Singapore Airlines.

Hong Kong International (HKG)

"Why? I got the best haircut of my life there. A full-on shopping mall. A bakery. Helpful signage in both English and Chinese. Plus, riding the train to and from Kowloon is fun, easy and fast, and you can check your bags at the downtown station."

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Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)

"Brand new and gleaming, Bangkok's new airport sparkles like the mirrors on the National Palace; gleams like the silks worn by Thai Airways flight attendants. It's cavernous and cool, full of marble and light and a shopping plaza boasting Gucci, Coach, Prada (real, not Night Bazaar counterfeits)."

If you're into that kind of thing. If you want my opinion, the less an airport tries to look like an upscale shopping mall, the better.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia (REP)

"Siem Reap International is the gateway to Angkor. The architecture is reminiscent of the local temples, and the giant golden lanterns hanging from the vaulted ceilings add a whimsical touch. Wooden shutters lend the air of a guesthouse, and the pond outside provides a peaceful respite. There's also a pleasant Internet cafe and some great shopping, including a fantastic Artisans d'Angkor boutique. The terminal is clean, spacious and staffed by some of the nicest security personnel I've ever had the pleasure of being frisked by."

Hato Airport, Curaçao (CUR)

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"A sleepy building, kept comfortable by cold water pumped up from the deep Caribbean Sea. Flower scents in the night. Crickets. Then in the distance, another sound. The airplane approaches, circles, lands. The KLM wide-body moors at the terminal, towering above it. Hustle and bustle, people coming on and off. Then the plane leaves for Amsterdam and the airport goes back to sleep."

Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)

"We love Ben-Gurion airport. The new Terminal 3 is centered around a spacious atrium filled with soothing fountains, shops and cafes, all bustling even at 3 a.m. The modern building is clad in marble, yet good acoustics and a lack of televisions make it serenely quiet. Security is thorough and effective, yet respectful and efficient. Free Wi-Fi and baggage carts are added perks. Bathrooms are clean and plentiful -- even in the parking lot!"

Ditto the efficient security and sense of quiet, which I wrote about after my own visit to Ben-Gurion last year.

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Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. (GSP)

"The exterior grounds are wonderfully manicured with shade trees, fountains and shrubs. The architecture is airy and moderne. There's a charming, albeit prissy garden. The faux-bronze sculptures are a delight."

"This agreeable place is approached by road through piney woods and onto parklike grounds, giving the feel of approaching a resort hotel, complete with fountain pools at the terminal doors. The long-term parking lots are generously shaded with trees and are an easy walk from the terminal. The swoopy, modernist concourse has comfortable upholstered seats surrounding sculptures and fountains. Best of all is the terrace restaurant and snack bar: more modernist architecture surrounded by an outdoor garden with sculpture and flora native to the Piedmont region. The feel of the place is downright elegant."

Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR)

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"Vancouver airport is by far the nicest I've flown into, out of, or through. Spacious atria with local native artwork (including spectacular totem poles), free wireless Internet, and a food court with reasonable prices."

"There's nothing like walking from your plane to customs while strolling past a river and a full-size Haida canoe, the sound of birds and ceremonial drums beating in the background, and a huge wooden raven dangling from the ceiling."

Kona, Hawaii (KOA)

"Like the '50s of an Elvis movie. We disembarked on the tarmac and walked into a beautiful, open-air airport with hutlike bungalows and greenery instead of the usual concrete and glass."

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Many Hawaiian airports, even Honolulu International, are open-air, which is something more warm-climate places should copy.

Sacramento (SMF)

"SMF has some great little touches. Traffic is nonexistent and parking is ample and cheap. It'd be nice if the light rail ran out here from downtown, but other cities haven't figured this convenience out either. Second, free Wi-Fi. Word up. Third, plenty of dining choices, and the 'venti' iced coffee is 60 cents cheaper than in a normal Starbucks. Bottom line, it's easy. We don't have much to brag about in Sactown, but our airport is pretty cool."

Reagan Washington National (DCA)

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"I'm in love with National (say 'Reagan' under pain of death among locals). Is it the cheery, pleasant yellow that reflects natural light from sky-high windows? Is it the short distances between concourses and the Metro? And National has a real restaurant, with a real wine list (take that, Chili's)."

I'm surprised more people didn't gush about DCA. It has an excellent subway connection, and the beautiful main terminal might just be America's best airport building.

Madison, Wis. (MSN)

"From the curbside, where a glass overhang creates prairie-style shadows on the roadway, to the restaurant dedicated to bratwurst, MSN is imbued with a sense of place while also being extremely easy to travel through. The security staff chat with passengers. The waiting areas have armchairs, fireplaces and local art."

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Detroit (DTW)

"No, I'm not kidding. The place was always dark, gloomy. Then the new Northwest terminal opened. The first time I saw it, I was stunned. It was beautiful: light, airy, with a train and moving sidewalks. (Only problem is, the two older terminals are still in use by the other airlines, and look even worse.)"

In the J.D. Power and Associates 2007 North America Airport Satisfaction Survey, DTW finished second best.

Memphis, Tenn. (MEM)

"One thing sets Memphis apart: the smell. With a barbecue stand seemingly every 10 feet, the air is thick with the aroma of grilled meat and savory sauce. Curses on my half-hour layover! If there was any justice, I'd be slumped in a waiting area, sauce-smeared and happy even as we speak."

Four different readers nominated Memphis. All four mentioned the waft of barbecue.

THE BAD

Dakar, Senegal (DKR)

My awful, middle-of-the-night experience in Dakar is what got this whole thing started. I'm not the only one ...

"As a correspondent based in Senegal I have the distinct displeasure of visiting DKR many times a month. I am, because of my job, something of an expert in African airports, and I can back up your assertion that it really is the worst. One would expect Lagos to be a nightmare, for example, but in fact it's pretty much a breeze. Abidjan has a great restaurant, bookstore and pharmacy. The renovated terminal in Accra is terrific and efficient. Bamako and Ouagadougou have small but organized airports, and Bangui is pretty good. N'djamena, Monrovia ... even Kinshasa isn't awful like DKR. None have that grim combination of a total absence of comfort and aggressive loiterers."

"DKR is disproportionately bad considering the relative prosperity of Senegal. I would have expected Ouagadougou's airport, in nearby Burkina-Faso, to be a catastrophe, but it's great. It's similar at Bamako, Mali -- a bombed-out ruin of a city. Somehow, Dakar beats out two of the poorest nations on the planet."

Mumbai, India (BOM)

"Full of hungry mosquitoes the size of horseflies. They flew up my pant legs! Random pieces of equipment are set about with no apparent purpose except to be in the way. No directions to gates or baggage claim. Sullen employees who wish you'd go away."

As many travelers know, India's geographical placement ensures that most long-haul flights arrive and depart in the wee hours, making the experience that much less enjoyable.

Cairo, Egypt (CAI)

"The plane banks over the Nile, then dips its wings to display the plateau of Giza and the Pyramids; the ancient walls of the Old City; the souks and bazaars. Cairo! But is this the airport? It looks and smells like the Greyhound station in San Francisco, circa '59, embodying all the glories and aspirations of Soviet-style nonfunctional architecture. And once through customs, one is assailed by drivers and hustlers hawking everything from pens to thousand-dollar excursions (stay away from the aptly named Al-Joker Tours)."

"Cairo is revolting. The entire place is filled with such dense clouds of cigarette smoke that it is a cancer risk just to fly there. Check-in is a free-for-all mass of shoving and shouting, with hundreds of people begging the indifferent clerks for attention. Luggage men climb upon mountains of suitcases to identify tour tags, pull at the pile until it collapses. The bags are piled on carts destined for various hotels, regardless of where their owners actually are staying. I have no idea what amenities the terminal offers. We were herded into a bare room, placed under guard, and made to stand for hours until our plane was ready. (Once on board, however, I have to say that EgyptAir was one of the nicest airlines I've ever flown.)"

Sheremetyevo International, Moscow (SVO)

"The best at being worst is Sheremetyevo, built for the 1980 Olympics by crazed East German architects angry at their Soviet masters. Dim and grungy, with bizarre hexagonal clusters hanging from the ceiling; populated by roving bands of Gypsies and transit passengers lying around the floor awaiting escape; staffed by surly employees looking for naive foreigners to pad their salary. It's an hour in the passport control line. You retrieve your luggage -- or don't, depending on how well you wrapped it in duct tape -- and lug it to the customs line. After a long wait, an agent paws through your belongings before releasing you into a mob of taxi drivers and thieves."

"You can smoke. You can board a plane while staggeringly drunk and no one will say anything. In a corner on the ground floor there's a mini casino with bizarre games of chance. A shitty sandwich costs $10. The locals are unfriendly. It's still not uncommon to get detained and ripped off by one of the myriad police gangs shaking down passengers. The bathrooms are disgusting despite being constantly cleaned by a gaggle of old ladies who don't mind that you're peeing in front of them. A ride to the city takes two hours due to traffic jams. Taxis cost hundreds of dollars for people who can't bargain with the greedy drivers. And the people arriving on flights from the U.S. seem to uniformly be American adoptive couples -- the single most annoying group of people of all time, for some reason."

"Sheremetyevo was a total nightmare until recently; it's now only a partial nightmare. The planning geniuses constructed two terminals, international and domestic, on opposite sides of the runways, meaning a 30-minute ride on the ring road. No one ever thought to put up signs directing transfer passengers, who must find an unmarked bus cruising around the parking lot while avoiding the scam artists trying to snag you for $50 cab fares."

O'Hare International, Chicago (ORD)

"The logistical ballet of air travel always reaches its statistically inevitable breakdown at O'Hare. Delayed crews, AWOL planes, gate reassignments, deicing delays, storms, power outages. During these fiascoes, there is absolutely nothing to do or see. The new terminals feel like warehouses, and forget about decent food. Topping it all off is the O'Hare Hilton, which I can't help but free-associate with words like 'organized crime,' 'infidelity' and 'despair.'"

Houston Intercontinental (IAH)

"I've yet to experience an airport in a third-world country, but I imagine Houston's Terminal B does a good job of approximating one. It is dimly lit and depressingly colored; there is one tiny deli to serve everyone, and one bathroom. One only needs imagine crates of clucking chickens and guards toting machine guns to complete the effect. Terminal B houses the gates used by Continental's regional jets. They've crammed as many tiny gates as possible into the space, with jets taking off for such glamorous destinations as Brownsville, Shreveport and Wichita. Taken as a whole, IAH is not a bad airport (especially the Pappadeaux restaurant), but avoid Terminal B at any cost."

Key West, Fla. (EYW)

"EYW is onomatopoeically coded. As you said, critiquing airports is all about expectations, which at least for me are elevated when visiting the haven of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Harry Truman. What you get at Key West is a sweaty outdoor wait at the curb, surly TSA employees who hate kids, a claustrophobic departure lounge, and an outdoor boarding pen featuring in-your-face jet exhaust. I found myself longing for Vladivostok."

Ontario, Calif. (ONT)

"When flying through Ontario in order to save $15 by avoiding LAX, be aware of the following: Once baggage is checked, you join a throng of frustrated cheapskates waiting to drop their luggage at the bomb scanner. You then graduate to a longer escalator line, which leads to an M.C. Escher maze through security. Finally in the concourse, enjoy the low ceilings, buzzing fluorescent lights, and $10 burritos."

London Heathrow (LHR)

"Heathrow is a random conglomeration of pitifully ugly buildings of the kind often called 'utilitarian' -- a term that hints they were actually designed for some utility, which is not the case. Getting between the terminals requires a shuttle trip that seems to cross all of southern England. There's a pair of traffic lights that turn green every 15 minutes or so, unleashing a stampede of private cars, parcel vans and buses into a spaghetti bowl of roadways and overpasses."

"Changing flights at Heathrow: Get off the plane, up the jetway, up the stairs, across the bridge, down the escalator, wait in line. Down the stairs, out the doors, onto the bus, across the city, across another city, off the bus, up the escalator, down the hall, through the double doors. Have a seat, your flight is two hours late. Down the hall, down the stairs, down the jetway, and onto the plane."

"I worked as a runner on a fly-on-the-wall TV series about Heathrow. Nowhere is as 12th-circle-of-hellish. I can tell you about the maggot-infested, abandoned suitcases at Terminal 1, which did the rounds on the carousel for weeks at a time. I can tell you about the tropical crickets and spiders inhabiting the false ceiling in Terminal 3. I can tell you about the football games the baggage handlers play with your luggage. I can tell you what the burger cook does to your 5-pound burger. London Heathrow. Worst. Airport. Ever."

"Circle for an hour. Land. Taxi for 30 minutes to a stand so distant that it's practically in Sunbury. Wait. Eventually a bus turns up. Drive for 20 minutes. Two-mile walk down corridors. Baggage conveyor broken. Wait an hour; somebody turns up with a screwdriver. Emerge into the rain and pay $100 for a ride downtown. Welcome to London."

"Heathrow is a sprawling mess where nothing works and everything is filthy. You walk for miles on floors matted with dirt; the decor is concrete slabs with industrial pipes precariously suspended from low ceilings; areas are roped off or covered in plastic sheeting; everything looks unfinished and stays that way for years. It is dimly lit, and the signs point you in the wrong direction."

Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)

"Who came up with that absolutely crack-brained triple-horseshoe design -- with a tram that only goes in one direction? American Airlines' annoyingly named SkytrAAin whizzes people to their gate at speeds of up to 6 miles per hour, using a modified electric bobsled that would have looked dated at the 1964 World's Fair."

Lahore, Pakistan (LHE)

"A lot like Dakar, but without the pleasant bistro. Filth? Check. Touts, ruffians and beggars? Check. Vaguely threatening government functionaries? Check. There are also church police, an alcohol ban, and a giant room full of luggage where bribes are extracted to facilitate finding your 'lost' items. I encourage you to visit the airport's dysfunctional Web page. Notice that the photos are retouched and the links don't work."

THE REST

"Washington Dulles airport is at once one of the most beautiful and dysfunctional airports in the country. Those 'Empire Strikes Back' creepy-crawly people-mover vehicles are rage-inducing."

Everyone hates the people movers. But the elegant central atrium at IAD is stunning. It's the work of Eero Saarinen, the Finnish architect responsible for JFK's famous TWA terminal (under renovation by JetBlue) and the Gateway Arch of St. Louis.

"My favorite African airport is Addis Ababa, [Ethiopia,] but my next favorite is Nairobi, [Kenya,] which sadly is being redeveloped. For a few dollars you can rent a small chipboard cubicle, just large enough for a bunk, with clean linen and use of a shower -- more privacy than at any other airport on earth."

"Frankfurt, [Germany's] airport exists in a parallel universe. With its tin-can 'Sprockets' design and harsh halogen spotlights, I suspect it was designed to prevent the jet-lagged multitudes stumbling through its passageways from readjusting their circadian rhythms. Does anyone really begin or end their journey in Frankfurt? Instead, FRA hosts a population of sleep-deprived transient zombies, all marching to a drummer in a different time zone. And the barbaric Germans still allow smoking in the terminals, which reek like a biker bar at 2 a.m."

"Tashkent airport, in Uzbekistan, is literally across a bridge over the railway from the city center. As you cross this bridge there are two signs. On one sign is the Uzbek 'Aq Jol,' which essentially means 'Have a good trip.' The other sign is an English translation that reads, 'Good luck!' Not exactly the send-off you expect at an airport."

"Madrid, [Spain's] Terminal 4 is one of the most beautiful in Europe, but for a long time it was impossible to know what time it was. There were no clocks. Not even on the boarding screens. Anybody without a cellphone went to random desks asking for the time. The employees were a bit tired of this. Finally they installed clocks, and so I no longer have an excuse to miss my flight home to Denmark."

"Pilots' favorite award: Sana'a International Airport (Yemen). It boasts a runway at 7,216 feet above sea level, with no ILS approach in a bowl ringed by mountains. Can you spell 'divert'? Prevailing wind is from the north, gusts from the south. In summer, Emirates' A330s come and go at night, supposedly to benefit from cooler, thicker air. Local fuel is so untrustworthy that Lufthansa carries extra from Cairo -- in order to land and fly back without refueling."

"Architectural wonder award: Phoenix Sky Harbor is positively picturesque. It blends tastefully into the desert, with capacity sufficient to handle traffic that will not materialize until 2050, if ever. Sadly, most gates have seating for 35 people at most, and they are never less than a 10-minute walk from the nearest toilet or water fountain. Clever use of five-dimensional design means that even though most gates are vacant, yours will always be a minimum of a mile from both the parking lot and your connecting flight."

"Lukla, Nepal, is a small town along the path to Everest base camp. There is an airport there, built by Sir Edmund Hillary himself, with flights to Katmandu. The gravel strip is a quarter-mile long, with the wreckage of more than one airplane piled nearby. The strip is built on a slope, allowing planes that are landing to lose momentum before hitting a wall at the end of the runway. Planes take off in the opposite direction, gaining momentum to avoid plunging into the Himalayan chasm below. There are no services, no bathrooms, no terminal."

"And what about Jordan's Queen Alia International in Amman? A nice enough place, but why would anyone name an airport after someone killed in an aviation accident?"

It's worse than that: Prior to adopting the name Royal Jordanian, the flag carrier of Jordan was called ... Alia.

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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.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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