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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!


…to open this discussion, a disclaimer.

This opinion is mine, formed through various conversations, reading and also first-person observations….the bulk of my first-person observation has been in Bangalore, though Hyderabad, Gurgaon/Delhi and Pune and Mumbai (to a lesser extent) also figure…

…the reason I have often heard being voiced for the sustainability of the Indian economic miracle (esp in contrast to the Chinese one) is the fact that India is finally a functioning democracy where the deprived ones have a legitimate non-violent means of effecting a regime change when desired. I have myself often cited the several changes in the ruling coterie in Delhi, all brought about by a supposedly uneducated and ill-informed population.

…12 months into a closer interaction with India, I am less convinced of this. The democracy seems to work in fits and starts. In most parts of the country, the rule of the mob prevails. Karnataka, supposedly the destination for most IT majors worldwide, rules the roost in terms of the pervasiveness of corruption. Gujarat, my favorite state and once the industrial hub of the nation, is riven by a communal divide that will take a lot of statesmanship to heal….

…even within the little conclaves that are being formed by the elite around the country, the operative term is their unsustainability. The mall-worker syndrome, as my friend Pallab most eloquently described it in a conversation, will catch up. As the humble mall-worker, often living miles away from the mall where he/she works at, usually unable to even dine at the same mall where he/she works, always unable to live the life of the nouveaux riche in their spaghetti straps and designer jeans, comes to terms with the hopelessness of his/her existence, I am dreading that he/she will snap one day….the outcome is terrifying….whether one thinks of Gurgaon or Koramangala or Phoenix Mills in Mumbai.

…the gap between the haves and the have-nots has become untenable…even amongst the haves, the gap between those enriched by IT and related services and those unable to partake of the dollar-driven wages of the IT/ITES sector is growing…the country is still blissfully celebrating the 25th year of Infosys’ existence – and not dwelling enough on the disaster waiting to happen…

…it will take a lot of political fortitude and seasoned statesmanship to stem the rot. Someone needs to call Mulayam Singh Yadav’s bluff. Someone needs to contain Narendra Modi. Someone needs to tell Deve Gowda that enough is enough, and that the time has come for true champions of the farmers to emerge. Someone needs to tell Sonia-ji that backseat driving is ok if it is a Karl Rove doing it; if the Prime Minister of the country has to start his day by paying obeisance to her, it is not acceptable or appropriate….

…I doubt whether such persons exist…will the businessmen of today take on a different hue if they get into politics – or will they change politics for the better? Rajeev Chandrashekhar of BPL is an MP, Vijay Mallya is an MP, Anil Ambani of ReliAAnce is into active politics – and yet while leveraging power for their business interests, they have done little to leverage their business savvy to improve the body politic….

…I am totally anguished by the politicization of the entire reservations business. just because Senor Arjun Singh wishes to score political points off Dr Manmohan Singh is no reason to bastardize the entire education system in the country.

It is bad enough that nearly 60 years after Indian independence, the oppressed and deprived class continue to toil in misery and hopelessness. Worse is the insouciance of the ruling classes that tends to opine that reservations (in higher education and in jobs) is the only form of affirmative action that needs to be tried out.

Why dont these people ensure basic physical safety, sanitation, and primary education, for these poor-est of the poor? I have seen classmates at the IIT that came in through the SC/ST reservation system – 90% of them did not deserve to use it since their respective fathers had used the same system before them to rise to the top rungs of their own public sector jobs! Unless this creamy layer is contained, and the realization sets in that deprivation applies to so-called forward castes as well when they live in poverty, no affirmative action program will be effective.

Most wonderful is Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav’s munificent offer to reserve seats in colleges for the so-called forward classes based on percentage of the population…

Go ahead, dilute educational brands that have been developed over the past 40+ years in a single diabolic stroke of the political pen.

While travelling in the US, almost every Pakistani I met (and there are several of them, all very nice to know, etc) had come there for under-graduate studies (since the college education system in Pakistan has totally collapsed after Bhutto successfully politicized the campuses in the 1970s). Indians seemed to typically come there for post-graduate studies.

Give the devils here in India a chance and I am sure this ratio will change – and an increasing number of even middle-class parents whose children do not get through to a premier college will start sending their offspring, and a whole boatload of foreign exchange, abroad to educate them in the US and Australia and elsewhere, and fund US and Australian universities and the education systems there.

Eventually the best faculty will be disheartened about teaching at the so-called temples of learning in India and avoid taking up employment there, in the same way that abysmal salaries and work conditions are keeping the best and brightest away from becoming school teachers.

This will be the death-knell of our much-vaunted education system. Talk of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

…and a solitary vocal voice in support…

Kaiser said…
There is no use in reserving seats in educational institutions .It would lead to dilution of standards set by these institutes. Rather the government could start strengthening the primary education system for these less privileged classes. Reserving those jobs and seats is like putting cart before the horse

….it is my belief that open economies prosper.

I am sure history will bear me out on this. When a society or nation prospers, it attracts talent from all over. A large part of the talent infusion is of semi-skilled or unskilled persons from nearby lands coming over for a better living – a smaller but significant proportion is of inherently smart people coming over for better opportunities.

The semi-skilled and unskilled segment help meet the needs for labor for the more mundane tasks. The talented/educated lot help sustain these successful economies through the cycle of continuous innovation required to keep them at the forefront. Without this infusion of talent, one is left reliant on regurgitated ideas and thoughts and this is the death-knell of any civilization.

The English civilization from the 17th through the 20th centuries, the French civilization, the German dominance of the early 20th century, the US domination from the mid-20th century and even the ongoing emergence of China has all been characterized by the infusion of new talent into the economies. Perhaps the only significant recent boom economy that has been the exception to this rule is Japan – while they did borrow from Deming and more, and while Nissan did gain from the induction of Carlos Ghosn, there has not been the usual infusion of large numbers of expatriates into the Japanese economy.

I was reading a Goldman Sachs projection (“Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050”, 1st October 2003″) where they spoke about China and India as the leading economic powers in 2050 AD along with the US. I have a feeling the analysts have gone overboard yet again with their projections – akin to the dot-com boom era of the 1990s. There are so many flaws in the Chinese and Indian socio-economic structures yet that the jury is still out in my opinion.

Unless China and India can each demonstrate the economic freedom, social equity and access to comfort and security that has been provided by the US, Great Britain, western Europe and even Hong Kong and Singapore in their respective hey-day, they will not emerge as a magnet for top-notch talent.

The education systems need to be strengthened to not only cover the under-graduate level education but also for graduate studies. In addition, there is a need to raise the overall IQ of the colleges – the standards fall off rather dramatically after the premier institutions. Finally, can India and China ensure that the female child is not punished for her gender. The gender ratios in the two countries is already atrocious and this kind of an imbalance is unhealthy to say the least.