Monday, July 30, 2007

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The power of a bad airport

In the Financial Times, Christopher Adams reports on British concerns about a badly functioning airport:

London’s status as one of the world’s leading financial centres risks being undermined by excessive delays at Heathrow and the airport’s sprawling layout, the new City minister warns on Monday.

In her first interview in the role, Kitty Ussher has told the Financial Times that the government shares business concerns about queues at passport control, the effect of security measures and the airport’s set-up.

Calling herself an “advocate” for business in government, she spoke of the unhappiness felt by executives at the so-called “Heathrow hassle” and the miserable experiences they have suffered.

In frank criticism that reflects mounting government concern, she voiced fears that multinational companies could question the rationale for holding annual or other important meetings in London. “I want multinational companies to feel really confident about housing their annual general meetings here,” she said.

“They often have it in a different financial centre every year, or board meetings, that kind of thing. I don’t want their New York or Dubai executives saying ‘Oh God, I don’t want to go through Heathrow’. I don’t want that to be an issue.”

She said of the airport: “You spend so much time being processed. That’s the issue... passports, security, just the layout of the buildings which makes it more difficult.”

I understand Ussher's concerns, but if a bad airport really drove away that much business, the city of Miami would desolate wasteland.

Still, this prompts a question to readers -- in terms of lines and general disorganization, what's the worst airport you've ever experienced? Has an airport been so bad that you actually altered your future tavel to bypass it?

posted by Dan on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM


Charles de Gaulle wins hands-down for bad airport, with Malpensa second. CDG has lost my luggage 75% of the time I've used it (Malpensa only 50%!). If you don't know where you're going at CDG, it's hard to figure out where to go -- so I always research terminals in advance, something I don't have to do anywhere else. Finally, at CDG a brand-new roof might land on your head and kill you.

Heathrow's layout is quaint but well-signed, so it works. The lines are awful, but Malpensa's were always much worse -- they seemed surprised that jumbo jets from the US kept landing at their airport every morning loaded with people.

posted by: arthur on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Hands down, BCN Barcelona. Last time I was through there, it was evident they were expanding it, but good God. I think the last time I flew out of there it took me nearly an hour and a half to check-in and get through security. Hopefully the expansion and renovations help to fix that.

posted by: Nate on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Heathrow is definitely bad one and Gatwick is not much better in terms of organization.
Germans in the contrary, coping with organization pretty well, have the habit of placing an airport in the middle of nowhere and naming it after some big city : Duesseldorf Weeze (78km from Duesseldorf) or Frankfurt Hahn (80 minutes from Frankfurt). However no airport made me turn back in my ways, I love travelling to much.
kind regards,

posted by: Maria on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Atlanta in the summertime, especially in the afternoon or evening, when a passing thunderstorm can just destroy the flight schedules.

posted by: Michael Simpson on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Given the hub-and-spoke system that prevails throughout the world of air travel, isn't the real question more about which airline a traveler is most wanting to avoid?

Because if that's the case, US Airways wins, hands down. If you need a location, let's say Pittsburgh. Or Philadelphia. Or Phoenix.

posted by: Ironman on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Atlanta can surely be a disaster, but for sheer disorganization CDG is the worst I've experienced. Make a connection there and after solving a maze you find yourself going back through security for the next flight. I've also had the pleasure of a 45-minute bus ride from the plane to the terminal.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I have avoided stops and connections at O'Hare, because of delays on the runway, and Detroit, because the first two times I went through there I wound up spending the night. CDG is very bad in terms of organization and signage.

posted by: mr punch on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I recently had the misfortune to travel through Indira Ghandi Intl Airport in Delhi. What a pit. Clouds of mosquitos (and a few bats!) while queing for immigration, a/c not able to cope with the 110 degree heat, and when the luggage from a 777 is too much to fit on the conveyor, they pile the excess on the opposite side of the bag claim hall without informing you that you might want to look over there if you can't find your suitcase on the announced belt. Hardly anything to drink (and nothing to eat) once past security, though I do give them credit that the restroom was sparkling -- cleanest place in the terminal!

posted by: AnIRprof on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Because if that's the case, US Airways wins, hands down. If you need a location, let's say Pittsburgh. Or Philadelphia. Or Phoenix.

Bah. I've chosen to fly through those first two in order to avoid La Guardia going to or from Ithaca on US Airways.

posted by: John Thacker on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

O'Hare, hands down. I routinely avoid going through Chicago for this reason. Monterrey, MX is a close second and Heathrow third.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Immigration at Dublin. And I HATE Logan. Houston wins for most boring, and yet still not terribly efficient.

posted by: Stacy on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Although I hate flying in and out of Italy, the worst airport has to be Cyprus's Larnaca. What a joke, I remember being in the terminal at the gate 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time sharing the departure lounge with my family and two nervous looking German couples. Where was everyone else? Well the Cypriots, as a rule it seems, do not get to the gate until at least 30 min after the scheduled departure time for the flight. Since everyone on the island knows one another, the gate attendants are reluctant to close the flight until everyone arrives. I guess there can be bottom-up issues as well.

posted by: Dan M on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Sao Paulo, Brazil. Avoid it at all costs !

posted by: ifbe on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I agree with the reviews of CDG. Traveling with a baby, I was prevented from boarding a flight based on the rule that you have to check in at least 60 minutes in advance of the flight. But it was 75 minutes in advance! The woman--standing under a clock that showed we were on time--just kept repeating "C'est ferme." When we finally did get a flight later that day, we were all loaded onto on of those buses (with about four seats and the rest standing-room) that takes you to the plane. Then we were told to get off the bus and return to the terminal. Then we were told to get on again, drove to the plane, and set on the bus staring at the plane for an hour before we were allowed to board. For the elderly and handicapped, it was inhuman.

The very name "U.S. Airways" sends a shiver down my spine. Don't get me started!

posted by: Alex T. on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

In terms of connecting-through, I'll always avoid Milan in the future if possible, with CDG a distant runner-up. (Conversely, Schiopol and Heathrow are airports of choice for connecting-through.)

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I agree with Heathrow. I had the misfortune of flying through it once. The repass through security, the F@#)(* bus system, etc, all really grated on me.

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Yes, let's not forget to say nice things. Schiphol is my European hub of choice. Then Frankfurt, then Heathrow.

I'm puzzled by the complaints about O'Hare, other than the fact that the weather makes it a stupid location for a hub.

posted by: arthur on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I guess not enough people fly through Dallas/FW to comment here, but transferring there is very difficult. You have all of the thunderstorm problems of Atlanta or Chicago, with a very poorly organized airport. Several times, we had to take the shuttle buses from the airport to the plane but only have to turn around because of a missing crew or broken plane. Not fun with an infant. We started flying strategically--through Houston going East and via Southwest going west (from Lubbock). I still refuse to go through DFW if I can possibly avoid it. The only saving grace is a TGIFridays that is open late--sole source of food after 11pm when stuck overnight.

posted by: Steve Saideman on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

In the United States, it's the airlines rather than the airports that draw the most complaints. It's a curious thing -- and I don't believe this was intended at all -- but as flying has become a progressively less pleasant experience most American airports have gotten nicer.

Take Detroit, which used to be a depressing long concrete tube with cigarette smoke everywhere and no place to eat anything but the most basic fast food. It is now a much nicer long steel and glass tube with passable restaurants and a tram line from one end of the place to the other. Chicago O'Hare is still pretty bad, mostly because at peak hours it handles about 25% more passengers than it comfortably can, but if you can fly instead out of nearby Milwaukee there are decent restaurants and a pretty good bookstore in addition to the easy ground access. If you have to get stuck in an airport Minneapolis isn't bad.

I imagine the Bombay airport must have been pretty bad the one time I was there, because all the passengers on my connecting flight were imprisoned in one section of the terminal. But that was some time ago.

posted by: Zathras on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

What's strange is that quite a few cities manage very pleasant airports: Singapore, Dubai and Amsterdam come to mind, and I'm never opposed to going through Portland or Minneapolis in the US. Among the other biggies, the New York airports are disastrous in on-time performance and Tokyo Narita is too far from the city. The quickest security and customs lines I've been through are Zurich (where customs took literally 10 seconds) and Pyongyang (well, they're never too overloaded with tourists, are they?)

posted by: cure on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I really think anyone putting something OTHER than Charles de Gaulle has not flown through there in the past...oh, 10 years. It is easily the worst airport I've ever been to. Everything everyone above says is true.

Stateside, my least favorite airport is Newark. The airport isn't bad, the layout isn't bad, and the transfers aren't bad. The problem is that Continental can't run an airline and so there are always delays.

On the positive front for international, I would say Vienna, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen all rank high on my list. Domestically, I love Atlanta's layout and if they could make the thunderstorms disappear, it would be fantastic. Dulles isn't bad either, in spite of the handicaps the designers built in (moon buggies anyone?).

posted by: Tom on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I can't believe I had to go through 7 people to find O'Hare. I fly at least twice a week, every week... and ORD kills me.

posted by: GeoffBro on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

In the US, the worst airport in a random day of the year is Atlanta.

O'Hare is bad too, but in the summer, nothing can compete with Atlanta in terms of airports I most want to avoid.

O'Hare may actually be worse than Atlanta December through February, maybe..., possibly.

posted by: paul on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I don't fly Europe but I fly North and South America on a regular basis. Within the US my most horrid airport experiences have been in Philly, Miami, Houston, and LAX. As others have noted, it is really the airline more than the airport that determines the experience in the US, at least to some extent.

Best airport experience in the US has to be Portland Oregon. Fabulous brewpubs, coffee, and an outpost of Powell's Books make waits there quite pleasant.

Worst airports in Latin America have to be Sao Paulo (horrid excuse for a major international terminal) and Guayaquil Equador. Was flying back from Santiago Chile to Seattle with my family and was forced to take a long layover in Guayaquil due to some US regulation that required the plane to be fumigated. Had to wait 4 hours with small children in an unfinished, un-airconditioned terminal in 100 degree with no services other than an old lady selling cokes out of a pushcart. Maybe it's been improved since then but the place was a mess a few years ago.

Best airport in Latin America has to be Santiago Chile. Other than the fact that you are forced to run the gauntlet of duty free shops coming and going it is a pleasant experience flying in an out of Santiago. The terminal, shops, and restaurants are nicer than most terminals in North America and customs and immigrations is more efficient than anyplace else in Latin America.

posted by: Kent on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Domestically Dallas-Ft. Worth is 7 for 9 in the last two years for 6 hr+ delays or missed connections. Atlanta, O'Hare and Denver don't even come close. O'Hare has good food compared to the others.

Heathrow and CDG intenationally are bad every time I've been through. Missed fligt and delays.

posted by: Tim D. on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Portland is the best in the USA. Hong Kong is the best internationally. HK is amazing. They did everything right. The new Bangkok airport did everything wrong.

posted by: Patrick on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Washington to Munich via Heathrow on BA used to present a dilemma. On the one hand, the connecting time was so tight they would pick you up in a van and drive you through backstage to get you to the Germany-bound plane, which was always already boarding. On the other hand, that meant your luggage had no chance at all of travelling with you. If it was heavy, getting it delivered to the house wasn't bad either, but sometimes that was three to five days later.

So Heathrow, yes, a reason to avoid London. (And it's not just transfers. In personal experience, the UK border control people were even less friendly than the unlamented East Germans who invited me into a small room to discuss the contents of my pockets. At least the East Germans had a sense of humor.)

It's probably historically appropriate that Charles de Gaulle is a huge pain in the ass. And Vienna, which was praised above, is not so good if you're connecting eastward. Almost all passengers headed to Central and Eastern Europe have to clear a second security check, and it's a huge bottleneck. Airline personnel regularly fish people out of the lines there who would otherwise miss their flights. A clear sign of bad organization.

(The whole TSA experience, however, is reason enough for some people to avoid the United States in its entirety. Combined with visa issues, the general poor treatment of non-nationals at US ports of entry gives America a bad name.)

Good airports? Copenhagen. If I have to transfer on Star Alliance, I try to do it through the Danish capital. A surprisingly nice place. Munich. For Germany's second-largest hub, it's surprisingly quick to get baggage and clear customs. Hong Kong. Lives up to futuristic expectations.

posted by: Doug on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

Worst major airports: Miami. Coming back from South America I ALWAYS book via DFW even though I live on the east coast. The old Lima airport was really bad, though the new international wing is a BIG improvement.

Berlin Tegel is also not great. Though unlike the comments above I don't really mind Dublin at all, or LHR - sure, it's big. But it is more or less well organized. I'm pleased about the new AA flight from JFK to Stansted though.

And LGA - where US Airways and United leave from different terminals even though they codeshare flights - is an exercise in frustration.

Best: I second Santiago as the best airport in South America. Bogota is also nice.

Worst airport ever? Calama, Chile. My flight hit a dog on the runway as we were landing and had to wait before deplaning so they could clean it up. Then they dumped all the baggage on the side of the runway for us to pick up - never even entered the terminal. the punch line? It was about 20 degrees and windy (high desert country). When I entered the terminal for my return the ony thing on sale was porn.

posted by: Luther Vandross on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I'll 3rd that emotion regarding Santiago, Chile. Small, clean, and efficient. Also the place where I least expected to find a Dunkin Donuts!

Geneva and Zurich kick ass as well.

The remember the international airports in Calcutta and Bombay as being quite bad.

Airports in the US suffer from the TSA effect as well as from the passport control queues. I can't remember for sure, but I think JFK had a picture of GW Bush on the wall above the table of customs and immigrations forms. Nothing is quite so galling as having to look at that grinning face while you grab your forms and survey the giant queue that awaits.

posted by: zevatron on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I would agree with CDG being awful, yes. But mostly in the summer as the terminals either reek from uncollected garbage or the power goes out or... One thing after another.

Heathrow is difficult because of its size and passport lines, but also because while BA may be friendly in the sky they are quite the fascists at Heathrow.

I do like Copenhagen and I do like Reykavijk, very much.

posted by: Phillip on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

None of you have been to joburg int., have you? Unless you have 100% hand luggage, i advise against....

posted by: George Lee on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

I'll 3rd that emotion regarding Santiago, Chile. Small, clean, and efficient. Also the place where I least expected to find a Dunkin Donuts!

I saw the Dunkin' Donuts and could have sworn I was in Boston.

Worst airport ever? Calama, Chile.

Are you kidding? Calama has a beautiful airport. Modern and efficient, I thought - I thought it served the tourist trade to San Pedro de Atacama quite well. Much better than the Antofagasta "airport", which was basically a shack.

Worst "airport" I've ever been in is Skardu, Pakistan - but that doesn't really count. Again, it's basically a shack. The Islamabad airport is scary, though.

Best airport I've been to, internationally, is the new Shanghai airport.

posted by: Al on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

OK - so I was in Calama in 1987. It may have changed quite a bit since then. But god, was it scary then...

posted by: Luther Vandross on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]


It's just not worth it. I flew to Australia via Frankfurt to miss it and Rio via Madrid. For short haul - Dublin/Belfast to London - it is (just about) tolerable, but for transfers it has provided me with moments of misery worse than being cheated on and dumped, it makes you question the utility of living.

The best was when there was a security alert at baggage claim so we all had to leave, and then they wouldn't let us back in to the restricted area and threated to arrest anyone who complained.

posted by: Tadhgin on 07.30.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

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