The Thoughts of Chairman May... on Best and Worst International Airports and Airlines

Observations on five years of business travel.

March 2003

Since I started working for IBM in January 1997 and embarking on a career involving international travel, I have experienced many different airports and airlines - some excellent, most average, and some terrible. The best and worst of international airlines and airports come up in some of the most surprising places...

So here's my picks for best and worst based on my personal experiences. Be aware that my list is by no means exhaustive of the sum totality of international travel, but this should help give you a good idea.


Best International Airports

  1. Changi International Airport (SIN), Singapore: Totally fantastic, this airport is worth visiting for the experience. Great shopping, comfortable seating areas airside, and NO problems with passing through Immigration in either direction. FREE dial-up ports for Internet access for your laptop, good food service, clear displays and travelators/people movers in convenient places. And you can do the complimentary "City Tour" of Singapore if you have several hours to kill.
  2. Schipol International Airport (AMS), Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Lots of shopping, and HUGE - feels like a bit of a maze but it's still pretty good. If you're into gambling, Schipol has its own casino airside, and the food court areas are good too. And as you might expect from the Dutch, one or two duty-free shops sell erotic CD-ROMs of nekkid ladies and so forth :)
  3. Chek Lap Kok Airport (HKG), Hong Kong: On a par with Changi and Schipol, the new Hong Kong airport on Lantau Island has similar facilities (minus Singapore's City Tour and Schipol's porn :) ). On the plus side, there are better rail links from the airport to town than Singapore, but Chek Lap Kok gets the award for producing the most disheartening view in a terminal: as the main terminal hall has no curves out to the two secondary piers, you have this tunnel effect looking from one end of the terminal to the other. "If I start walking now, I should be able to get to my gate in three hours..."
  4. Sydney (Kingsford-Smith) International Airport (SYD), Sydney, Australia: Recently revamped for the Olympics, Sydney's airport is very good. Pretty handy to the city (you can see the Centrepoint Tower from the terminal), and with a good assortment of shops. Can't recall what the airside food is like, mostly as I've been able to get into the excellent airline lounges most times I've been through there.
  5. Auckland (Jean Batten) International Airport (AKL), Auckland, New Zealand: Yes, it's one for the home team. Although Auckland is small, the designers have made good use of wood and assorted greenery to give the terminal a refreshing atmosphere. Shops are good, as well as the airport lounges - and in these days of heightened security, Auckland also provides amnesty envelopes just before security where you can arrange to post your pocket knife or knitting needles home to yourself rather than have them confiscated. Why don't other airports do this?

Honourable Mentions

  1. Frankfurt International Airport (FRA), Frankfurt-au-Main, Germany: With a Deutsche-Bahn railway station in the basement, and regular services to the railway station in the city itself, it's dead-easy to get into the city and/or onwards around Germany without worrying about cars or maps. Frankfurt is also the only airport I've seen with its own sex-shop!
  2. Rarotonga Airport, Rarotonga (RAR): The only international airport I've been through where you can see the baggage claim area from the arrival gate, and where there is an outdoor transit lounge complete with lawn and picnic tables.

Worst International Airports

  1. Nassau International Airport, Nassau (NAS), Commonwealth of the Bahamas: Considering that the Bahamas relies heavily on tourism, the state of Nassau's airport is a positive disgrace for arriving and departing passengers. When you arrive, part of the concourse you pass through gets flooded every time there is heavy rain, and when you get through Immigration to baggage claim there is seldom any display working to advise which of the three carousels your bags are being delivered on. The best that you can guess is that it's not Carousel #2, as this has been stripped down for the last nine months and will probably only get working on Judgement Day. And if you're waiting for an arriving passenger, tough luck - none of the flight information monitors work so you have no idea as to whether the flight has arrived or is delayed.
    Departure is only marginally better. The only positive thing about flying out of Nassau to the US is that you can clear US Immigration and Customs in Nassau, and even with that try and get copies of the relevant forms if the airline forgets to give them to you. But once you've passed through this you're in a soulless departure lounge serviced by ONE souviner shop, ONE fairly tacky bar, and ONE "food court" with terrible-looking food and where reports of waiting for over twenty minutes for a simple hot dog have been recorded. And NO currency exchange facilities beyond buying stuff and hoping the staff will give you change in US dollars. Naturally, as each of these establishments has a monopoly upon business in the Departures lounge, it's a case of the poor passenger having to take what's given - or wait until they deplane at their destination.
  2. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Los Angeles, California, USA: A classic case of "what you see is not what you get". Despite the nice looking buildings and architecture of what is a (generally) clean airport, the experience of passing through LAX is decidedly substandard compared to other international hubs. There are almost NEVER enough Immigration or Customs officials dealing with international arrivals, the last time I traveled via LAX I spent over an hour and a half waiting to get processed in Terminal 4! And what boofhead placed the baggage carousels in Terminal 7 so that people exiting the baggage claim area had to squeeze past everyone else waiting for their bags to appear?
    Not even the airline lounges get off scot-free. Neither the United or American Airlines lounges have proper shower facilities for people transferring from long haul trans-Pacific flights, and there's no proper directions in the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) to the three microscopic QANTAS lounges.
  3. Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL), Manila, Republic of the Philippines: In all honesty there's not a lot wrong with this airport (known simply as "NAIA" to the locals), but the one thing that is very annoying is enough to rank it in this list. Namely, the lack on terminal seating in the check-in area before proceeding through security and emigration. If you happen to arrive at the airport early in an attempt to beat the traffic, and your airline check-in counter hasn't opened yet, there is NOWHERE to sit (apart from on your cases) while you wait. Definitely a design flaw!

Dishonourable Mentions

  1. London Heathrow Airport Terminal 3 (LHR), London, United Kingdom: Not bad enough to class it as one of the worst, but Heathrow Terminal 3 could certainly do with a spruce-up to make the place more appealing. At least you're no longer reliant on the grotty London Underground Picaddilly Line to get into central London, the new Heathrow Express to Paddington Station is a lot faster and more pleasant. It had better be - 14 pounds for a one-way trip!
  2. Miami International Airport (MIA), Miami, Florida, USA: Again, nothing really wrong with the place - it's clean, reasonably efficient (at least in these post-9/11 days) - but why oh why are the baggage claim areas so far from the terminal gates without travelators/people movers to service them? Admittedly it's a good stretch of the legs after the flight, but it feels like you need a GPS navigation system just to find your bags! And once you've got your bags, why do you have to climb up to the Departure level to find the shuttle bus for your hotel?
  3. Leeds/Bradford International Airport (LBD), Leeds, United Kingdom: Let me put it this way - airbridges in a snowy Yorkshire winter beat trudging out to and from shuttle buses in the snow...


Best Airlines

  1. Singapore Airlines (SQ): What can you say? Great food, great service, in-flight in-seat entertainment (in Economy!) and no hassles whatsoever. Not to mention the famous "Singapore Girls". :) A wonderful experience!
  2. Cathay Pacific (CX): Pipped at the post by Singapore Airlines, service levels are just as good except on two flights I had trouble with mechanical failures in the in-flight entertainment systems. Their service to allied Frequent Flyers is superb, as I was presented with a bottle of wine and a card signed by the crew when I flew on Cathay between Hong Kong and London on my birthday!
  3. QANTAS (QF): A good solid airline with goods service and pretty good inflight meals, QANTAS of late has been improving their service by leaps and bounds. I'd rate them above Cathay if it wasn't for the fact that their complimentary headphones or the headphone jacks are always breaking down, as well as still having aircraft with old-style fixed headrests in Economy. The electric Business Class seats are really great, and the Frequent Flyers scheme is very good too - especially their website.
  4. Air New Zealand (NZ): Service is just as good (if not better) than QANTAS, but the lack of Economy-class in-seat entertainment that QANTAS is rolling out just pips Air New Zealand at the post. Economy-class legroom is the best in their air.
  5. British Airways (BA): Commendable serice on long-haul, and I fully subscribe to their philosophy in Business Class of "the food doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be top notch!". Friendly staff too, even if they do mistake fox puppets for live animals :)

Worst Airlines

  1. Bahamasair (UP): Can be best summed up as a "flying jitney" bus service. Ancient aircraft that have the worst on-board smell I've EVER encountered as well as a distinct lack of care in cosmetic maintenance, a flight schedule that is effectively "whenever", and zero in-flight service. Again, for a nation dependant on tourism, the current condition of Bahamasair is shameful.
  2. United Airlines (UA) - equal: Yes, it's the biggest carrier in the world, but the much talked about American customer service doesn't seem to get this far. The food is terrible (and now I know where the comments on airline food in general came from), and for some reason, none of the aircraft I flew on had seats with a spring-loaded recliner, necessitating a manual pull-up to get your seat into position for landing. And as for flying the Pacific route between Auckland and Los Angeles, QANTAS Economy-class passengers get more for their in-flight amenities than United Business class. (The last is academic now as United is withdrawing from that route as of the end of March.)
  3. American Airlines (AA) - equal: But United's main competitor doesn't get away with it either. The first time I flew AA was from LAX to Dallas/Ft. Worth, and to my horror I found the bulkhead in "First" Class was covered in grey carpet fuzz. The food is on a par with or worse than United (one point I pretended to be asleep when the food trolley came around because what was on offer smelled like the rubbish bin of an Italian restaurant), and the choice of in-flight audio is lousy. And they have the nerve to charge you for headsets in the process.
  4. Japan Airlines (JL): Special mention for their seat spacing being "designed by Japanese, for Japanese", meaning that anyone bigger than your average Asian requires a shoehorn to get into their Economy-class seat and a crowbar to get out again...

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Copyright 1996, 2003 Terry Knight.
Last Updated March 2003
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