Avoiding the scareports
Rooting out the world's least popular plane destinations
By Barry Neild for CNN
Hong Kong's now defunct Kai Tak airport was among the scariest.
HAVE YOUR SAY
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Hong Kong's notorious Kai Tak airport closed in 1998, frequent fliers breathed a collective sigh of relief at the thought that they would no longer have to endure a perilous right-angled landing through mountains and residential tower blocks.
While landing in the former British colony's beautiful new Chek Lap Kok airport is a delight, worldwide unhappy landings have by no means been eradicated. The trick, however, is knowing how to avoid them.
For, while it is quick to acknowledge smooth runways and glittering terminal buildings with numerous awards, the air industry has been sluggish in identifying its weak spots.
Airports like the new Hong Kong facility, Singapore's Changi, Seoul's Incheon and Amsterdam's Schiphol are regular prizewinners, with judges waxing lyrical about their comfy lounges, efficient transfers and bountiful shopping areas.
But there are no lists to identify the airports where stone-faced attendants preside over uncomfortable plastic seating in lounges that would be better suited to herding cattle rather than emotionally weary travelers.
"Everyone in the travel industry realizes it only pays to be completely positive. You cannot market awards for bad things, just the best," says Chris Elliott, a Florida-based travel critic who has written extensively on the subject of awful airports.
Nevertheless, says Elliott, competition for the prize for worst terminal would be stiff.
Regular visitors to airports in the developing world will probably have their own candidate. Senegal is unlikely to garner praise for the three-hour immigration queues at Dakar's Yoff International Airport, as is Afghanistan's Kandahar airport, where the last time this reporter visited three years ago, facilities consisted of a lone man armed with an AK-47 guarding a portable toilet and a goat.
But critics say that plenty of high-profile operations fall far short of the mark, with London's Heathrow and New York's Newark among prestige plane destinations regularly listed among offenders.
"The trouble is, no one set out to design airports that would grow to the size they are today," Elliot tells CNN. "So much has changed in the airline industry with travel that was once seen as a luxury enjoyed by only a few people now a major form of transport for most of us.
"There was no forward planning and unfortunately we are stuck with these flawed designs that simply cannot handle the volume of passengers. This leads to low staff morale levels -- and sometimes strike action -- which affects the experience of the traveler. More often than not, it's pandemonium."
Elliott's worst offenders match those of other complainants, with Internet blog sites pinpointing Los Angeles International for the sprawling confusion that often leads to passengers missing flights, or the interminable construction work that has led to Heathrow being described as the world's largest building site with its own airport.
Another major offender is Paris Charles de Gaulle, where years of passenger misery over crowded and tired facilities were not helped by the 2004 collapse of a newly built departure lounge roof -- an incident in which five people died.
Regular flyer Julian Roschlau of Eschenbach, Germany, who rates Amsterdam, Munich and Montreal among his favorites, ranks Charles de Gaulle and Iceland's Keflavik airport as his least favorite.
"Paris is definetely the place to get rid of that well earned money, e.g. by spending about six euros for a tiny hot dog that doesn't taste good at all and that will leave you hungry," he said.
"And the whole structure of the airport was quite confusing."
Brian Turner, who has compiled his own Internet list of "Harrowing Goddamn Airports," gives honorable mentions to New York's La Guardia (short runaway) Las Vegas ("It's the desert, does the airport have to be a block from downtown?") and the hair-raising landing on the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten that regularly ruffles towels on the nearby beach.
But opinions vary. A 2005 survey by the U.S. Zagat guides listed London's Heathrow as one of the best alongside Newark and San Francisco.
And while Charles de Gaulle is a frequent low scorer, it does have its fans, most notably Merhan Karimi Nasseri -- said to the inspiration for the Steven Spielberg film "The Terminal."
Nasseri, an Iranian asylum seeker who was granted refugee status in Belgium then lost his documents, has been living at the airport since 1988, despite French and Belgian offers to accommodate him.
Adds Elliott, airports should try to pander to passengers by providing customer comfort rather than cash earning extras.
"Flying is no fun and shopping malls full of souvenirs I don't want to buy and restaurants selling food that is not only bad but overpriced don't make the experience any better. They should focus on providing seats that are comfortable and on getting people where they want to go."
|© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.