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Walkabout: From A to B
Move the damn airport closer!

October 20, 2000
Web posted at 4:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 4:00 a.m. EDT

Ticked off at Asia Buzz? Turned on? Talk back to TIME
People say a lot of things when you are about to embark on a trip. They range from the mundane ("Have a nice trip") to the inquisitive ("When do you get back?") to the hostile ("Don't come back"). None of the comments have surprised me, sadly, not even the last one.

But there is one thing that no one has ever said to me, and that's "make sure you get there early so you can spend some quality time at the airport." And I'm glad. An airport should be a geographical nowhere. It's a portal (in the traditional The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe sense, not the irritating e- sense), you enter to get somewhere else. My only desire with airports is that they are close and efficient -- and perhaps serve a decent cup of coffee for under $10.

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I like that sense of being processed for travel: stamped, punched, paid, stubbed and loaded. We go from being somewhere to being in motion. But that's not enough for some people. They want to dress it up with duty-free shopping, spa treatments, business centers and cable TV. They want to turn an airport into an experience. This is not a good thing. As soon as you make an airport an enjoyable place to be, airlines will grow increasingly comfortable announcing delays. And increasingly stingy with food and accommodation vouchers.

An airport shouldn't be a hostile environment, but it should be a place that knows it isn't a place. When I pass through airports, I don't want to gasp in wonder at the architecture. I simply want to get in and out as quickly as possible. When I'm leaving for somewhere else, I want to be out the door as quickly as possible. There's nothing worse than standing at the doorway for an awkwardly long goodbye. But it's taking longer and longer in Asia to give a country the kiss-off.

Hong Kong spent $20 billion to build Sir Norman Foster's Chek Lap Kok. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) cost $2.8 billion, China spent $1.33 billion to construct Pudong International, and Bangkok plans to erect a $2.8 billion airport (on credit) to replace shabby but likable Don Muang. Now although these airports are all significantly better than the ones they replaced, they are also all further away from the population they serve. A few of them, like KLIA and Pudong, are more than an hour away from their respective central business district. Bangkok is going to about the same distance out. And this is seen as progress? I'll take a gravel runway on the edge of town over the Louvre, two hours away, any day of the week.

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