One of the positives of the extensive travel my job entails is that I get to see a lot of hotels and airports around the world. It is a pain in that the trips typically are just the airport, a hotel room, the venue of the meeting(s) and back to the airport.

I have been to Japan over a dozen times over the past 2-3 years and seen Mt Fuji only once – from an aircraft as I flew from Tokyo to Seoul! I have been to Beijing and not seen the Great Wall and had actually been at least 5-6 times to Orlando for various conferences before I actually set foot inside one of the theme parks at Disneyworld.

But I digress. The huge positive is the sheer number of airports that I get to see. And my favorites are (in order):

1. The new Kuala Lumpur International Airport ( ). An absolute masterpiece, the cornerstone and the flagship of the stated direction of the Malaysian government to ensure their nation is classified as a Developed nation in a few years. It is by and far one of the best airports for transit passengers – there is little else that I could have asked for from amenities, quality lounges, great shopping and very comfortable seating in the common areas. I have never been into Kuala Lumpur so unlike the other airports on this list, that one thing remains a question mark – on ease of access to/from the city.

2. The Incheon Airport serving Seoul, S Korea ( – which is a testimony to what the city of Seoul wants to become! Its 5th birthday is coming up on the 29th of this month and is a magnificent work of architecture with its soaring highlights. As one very well equipped terminal handling all the traffic, it is very very easy to navigate. The only drawback to this airport is that it seems rather lifeless, perhaps because though it does handle a very high volume of traffic (passengers and cargo), its construction and opening seemed to coincide with a downturn in the Korean economy which is now being overshadowed by the explosive growth of China and the emergence of Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport as an alternate hub.

3. The new Hong Kong International Airport ( – beautiful struture, very lively and humming with activity, flights go to almost every corner of the world from here and one sees a veritable smorgasboard of nationalities and skin-tones in the transit halls. Slightly removed from the city – but that is its only drawback. With the floor-to-ceiling windows offering fantastic views of the Hong Kong Bay and more, this is truly an awesome airport!

4. The Greater Pittsburgh International Airport

I first flew into the PIT in 1974 – remember flying on the Allegheny Airlines to NYC then but that is all. My more conscious memories stem from my visit there in 1987 – it was a tiny airport still then serving this burgeoning region of western Pennsylvania, South-Eastern Ohio and West Virginia.

But all this had changed when I flew in again in the late 1990s – by now they had built this spectacular new airport ( and actually made it like a complete mall inside. No airport’s retail initiatives were harder hit by the security restrictions post-9/11 than PIT. The volume of transit passengers has never been too high – this has mainly comprised regional travellers from the immediate catchment area transitioning over to a longer-range jet at PIT. Hence the airport mall was designed for the good denizens of the Pittsburgh area to come in and shop at. Now they cannot even enter the terminal.

Pittsburgh is where I was introduced to the concept of “landside” facilities v/s “airside” facilities. Thus an airport restaurant may be considered “landside” if it is located outside the security check area where visitors and so on can also access its services. “Airside is just the converse”.

That being said, PIT is one of the most efficient airports for passengers planning this as a destination, and is an outstanding option for those planning to only transit through. By and far the best airport in the US, surpassing even the newer ones in Minneapolis and in Detroit. The sheer length of my association with this great city makes the Pittsburgh Airport one of my personal favorites.

5. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport: An airport that is still very good inspite of its advanced age – the only one on this list that was constructed primarily before 1990. Inspite of that, it has a unique character, ease of access, an in-airport casino and an actual in-airport edition of the Rijk Museum with original Rembrandts on display, and so much more. Must be one of the great all time airports simply for its longevity and continued relevance.

6. Sydney Airport: A relatively small airport, but beautifully equipped and maintained

7. Singapore’s Changi Airport: The general seating is not very comfortable, the signage not very clear and the shopping very very in-your-face. Also, very small and thus crowded always. That being said, it is like all things Singapore – very controlled and correct, every check-box for a good airport ticked off including orchids all over to provide some pale imitation of greenery and so on.

8. The new McNamara Terminal at the Detroit Metro Airport: If you must fly into Detroit, the only way you should do so is by Northwest Airlines so that you get to land in the new McNamara Terminal there. Spacious and sumptious, this is everything the old Metro Airport is not. With a single one-mile long terminal, the elevated tram linking end to end complemented by moving walkways at the floor level, great eateries and more, this is truly amazing. There is very little local feel to it however, and also the fact that this is only used by NW Airlines (and its alliance partner) passengers prevents it from securing a higher ranking. However, it is by and far the best airport in the US after Pittsburgh International.

9. Honolulu Airport: This is exactly how the gateway to Hawaii should be. Very wide open, low-slung and spread out, the excellent vistas and more make it much better than San Diego’s Lindbergh Field with which it shares several attributes. The Honolulu Airport has actual greenery growing all over the terminal (and much more natural, not force-fitted into the structure as at Singapore’s Changi). It is however, much more of a domestic airport in terms of amenities and shopping – plus as an airport in Hawaii, it is intended as a destination airport and not a transit one.

10. Zurich Airport: One of the most family-friendly airports in the world. Very well appointed with observation decks to watch flights take off and land, great children’s play area well designed to address the need of the tired parent, excellent shopping and fabulous views of the Alps outside.

Yet there are some airports that are distinctly overrated. The prime example of this category is Shanghai’s PuDong International. Now if one goes by the assumption that China and its amenities (till a few years back) were comparable to the pathetic ones provided in India, then the PuDong International (as also the Beijing National) are both evidences of a magnificent transformation.

However as compared to the great ones around the world today that China is truly vying with, the PuDong International is at best very functional and adequate, lot of the Soviet/Mao era design features continue including shapeless open halls and more; shopping very very limited; ok destination airport especially with the new high-speed MagLev connnection to downtown Shanghai

The bad ones:

1. Frankfurt Airport: Very busy, very cluttered, very poor quality seating, the smell of cigarette smoke pervades all over the terminal, the signage is pathetic with way too many ups and downs, the airline lounges, esp the Lufthansa ones, are utterly substandard in space, amenities and seating

2. Tokyo Narita International: An airport that has by and far outgrown its purpose. The biggest positive is the high speed Narita Express train connecting it to downtown Tokyo but even this is undermined by the enormous number of escalators one needs to climb (with your baggage) to get to the checkin area. When you land there, god forbid you are forced to land at one of their so-called “bus-gates” on either a cold day in winter or a wet day in July…

3. Bangkok International Airport: Another airport showing signs of its age. Or perhaps that it is still a 3rd world country’s airport and that it is not yet fair to compare it with the ones in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Singapore. For those in the US, this is like the old Detroit Metro Airport where it was possible to check in on time and miss a flight by the time you walked to the gate proper.

4. The Abu Dhabi Airport: Which would not have figured at all but for two trips in-transit through this of all available airports. It is a strange design – with tiles more akin to bathroom tiles (in shades of deep blue and white) plastered all over the dome shaped (actually more donut like with a dip in the middle of the dome) ceiling. Very jarring on the eye and characterized by a clutter for seating.

5. London Heathrow: Distinctly showing signs of age now. A creaky, outdated structure redeemed by the excellent connections to downtown London and the very lively passenger waiting area. However, moving between terminals is a time-consuming challenge, and the signage pathetically inadequate.

6. Atlanta’s Hartsfield – badly designed relatively new airport with the sole redeeming feature being the excellent train connection into downtown Atlanta

7. La Guardia and JFK -in New York enough said.

8. Boston’s Logan International – unless you are landing and taking off on Delta out of the completely rebuilt Terminal A, the terminal experience is pathetic. Compound this with the hopeless traffic arrangements, the difficult to reach rental car terminals and the totally inadequate Blue Line connection to the city, this is a pity of an airport.

Then there are ones that are so bad that they are off the charts entirely.

This category has to be headlined by the Indian airports. All the Indian airports – Bangalore’s is a joke but even Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai are hopelessly inadequate and out of keeping with the increasingly global role India plays – are absolutely pathetic. Ranking the airports in India from best to worst is an interesting exercise in itself but worth doing…

1. Chennai’s Meenambakkam Airport: Easy transfer between the domestic and international sections, adequate though small lounges, like all Indian airports pathetic in-airport retail, all are compensated by the relative efficiency and cleanliness of the airport. Getting around is another thing entirely, with the Madras cabbies and auto drivers historically notorious and only getting worse.

2. Mumbai’s Santa Cruz Airport: The Sahar International is bad and badly in need of a total overhaul – the Santa Cruz Domestic Airport, esp the new departure terminal, is quite modern though badly architected. The big plus here is the ease of getting to the city from here and the in-airport retail and lounges are nice. A big reason to use the airport is the Hotel Royal Orchid just outside – just what the doctor ordered for tired transit passengers.

3. Hyderabad’s Begumpet Airport: One of the most accessible of Indian airports, this has a very elegantly designed (and adjacent) domestic and international terminals a la Chennai. Very clean bright lines characterize this airport – only rumors have it that it will be “retired” once the new airport comes up in the southern outskirts of the city near Shamshabad. I hope it is not – it still has a key role as the urban airport quite like Chicago’s Midway and the Washington National.

4. Kolkata Airport

and the comments from back then…

Aruna said…
Very interesting! Was wondering why any aiprort from Africa and South America dont feature on this list?? Your travels havent taken you there or they are completely off the radar?!!!What are your thoughts on Soekarno-Hatta aiport, Jakarta? I have found their domestic airport quite passenger friendly. Was amazed to see the number of domestic airlines that fly in that country!

12:48 AM

Buck said…
You were spot on with your first observation – that my travels have never taken me into either Africa or continental South America. In fact the only place I have been south of the Equator is Sydney……have not been to Jakarta either – though you have just provided me with incentive to accept the next invitation to head there!