Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Worst Airports in the World

In the spirit of balance and reciprocity, we felt it necessary to respond to our recent look at The Best Airports in the World. It made sense to honour the best first, given the prevalence of so many poor airports around the globe. Exceptional airports, where time between connections is transcendental, food pleasurable and shops stock more than just gum and pulp fiction paperbacks, are rare.

On the other side of the equation, bad airports are everywhere. Endless lines, incessant delays, abusive personnel, lost luggage, heinous washrooms and worse yet, inferior coffee, typify these shameful places. The big surprise? Several of the worst are in some of the most cosmopolitan, lucrative and wonderful metropolises in the world. In other words, just because you happen to live in London or Paris does not guarantee you a great airport. Ever been to Charles de Gaulle? Then you know what we mean.

Of course, lack of economic clout does stack the odds against you in the airport department. Some nations have a tough enough time with their basic infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and the like, let alone airports. Still, we wonder, if you build it, will people come? For years Hong Kong had a notorious airport. Since the advent of Hong Kong International however, the city has drawn a heap of praise and envy, not to mention a new wave of tourism, for what may be the most efficient and modern facility in the industry.

Enough about one of the best. From places in the world we expect better from, here are the Worst Airports in the World.

London Heathrow

It would be logical to infer that when an airport is massive and busy - all the time - officials or the powers-that-be would respond in kind. Renovate, clean the place up, streamline, hire a productions operations team to speed up lines for baggage, customs, check-in and the like. You know, eliminate the irritants that come with air travel. Other airports have done more with less. Heathrow however, seems to forever get it wrong and remains the only pile of rubble in the world - or construction site rather - with tarmacs for planes to land.

The airport seems to expend the minimum amount of effort and resources to stay barely serviceable. Shuttles that ferry passengers from one terminal to the next meander on a network of terribly ill-conceived “roads”. Flight connections are a sketchy prospect of irrational frustration that may drive you mad with stress. Naomi Campbell would be happy to tell you all about the school of decorum Heathrow security personnel went to.

Paris Charles de Gaulle

The citizens of London deserve a better Heathrow - no, not Gatwick - and in turn, Parisians expect more from their central airport. Charles de Gaulle himself would cower in shame if he had to spend time here. Paris CDG is a dump, plain and simple. The city that gave as Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, Les Halles and the Eiffel Tower should have known better. The original terminal is a windowless concrete bagel whose blueprints should have hit the shredder before they broke ground. The new space-age terminal that President Sarkozy proudly inaugurated in 2007 is an architectural embarassment that looks like it belongs in EuroDisney. The fact that four people lost their lives in a construction mishap was an omen officials should have heeded to halt expansion and fix the problems.

Where do we begin? Why not write a proper customer service manual for staff to follow for one? The reputation that French waiters have for rudeness may play well in that quaint Latin Quarter bistro, but not at airport customs. Want more? The main terminal at de Gaulle is filthy, food prices are a scam, the layout and directions for passengers to get around is a collective nightmare and believe it or not, the homeless and stray dogs use the airport as their personal toilet. Is this really Paris?

Despite CDG, the French capital is The City of Light .

Sheremetyevo International Airport, Moscow

You almost want to give airports in former communist republics a free pass. Almost. True, Soviet-era architecture - solemn square and rectangular monuments to concrete and steel - will persist on Russia’s landscape for some time as gray reminders of grim days. But the Iron Curtain fell people, so get with the program we say.

Why not start with Moscow’s airports? There were three at last count. Sheremetyevo is the first place most new visitors to Russia, let alone Moscow, see. As far as first impressions go, it ranks right up there with the German Army when it broke the Eastern Front (look it up).

Where to begin? Sheremtyevo is a drab, tired place. The renaissance so widely publicized in relation to Moscow over the past decade has not reached here apparently. Yes, renovations are underway. But the bane of all constuction projects with the best of intentions - delays - has of course, slowed improvements considerably. Hopefully, one of the changes on tap will be to shift the entire airport closer to Moscow. Believe it or not, it can take three hours to get to Red Square from the terminal exit. Some flights are shorter than that. Worse, given the air of corruption that permeates modern Moscow, you never quite know what to expect in passport control, customs or even the restaurants, taxis and shuttles into town. One thing you can count on? Cigarette smoke everywhere. In Moscow, that train is never late.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi

Your first thought is probably, do we expect more from airports in India? Well we admit, the level of expectation is nowhere near London or Moscow. But still, India is on the rise. The economy has been white hot over the past few years. The country has a chance, perhaps, to become a real world superpower. So the airports should follow suit, no?

No, India is not a haven of first-class airline travel. A wonderful country to visit to be sure, but for countless other reasons. The airports are hives of human activity and you have to wonder how the transportation system works and runs on time, if at all. Despite a general lack of organization on first appearance, people do get around. However, from Mumbai to Chennai, Bangalore to Kolkata, the airports are simply inferior, chaotic and sadly out of date.

Indira Gandhi would weep at the state of her airport in Delhi, which could very well be the worst in India, if not the world. While tough to quantify the level of indigence and overall state of destitution, suffice to say that the airport is a mess. Esthetically the place is enough to send you into a deep depression. Worse, the odds that you will have enough time to notice and get to know every pitiful intricacy of the airport’s “design” are high. The pace at Indira Gandhi is painful and sloth-like. As you wait, there are few if any amenity comforts to occupy your time. Well, not entirely correct. You can count the paan spit stains on the carpet, race broken baggage carts or play Russian roulette with the ancient x-ray scan machines. Just stay away from the duty free shops.

Chicago O’Hare

America will not get a free pass here. The state of airline travel in the United States is poor, to say the least. Paranoid security has run amok and fuel prices have sent airline executives into a panic. As a result, flight times in many cases are being extended to save a few dollars. Screw the passengers, seems to be the mantra. But the Mile High Club this is decidedly not.

Chicago O’Hare, the hub of all hubs, is another example of too big, too much, too fast - with no discernible plan in tow. Delays are incessant and inevitable, even in non-inclement weather. One in six flight cancellations in the United States is at O’Hare, which is bound to occur when you have more air traffic than any other airport, with the possible exception of Atlanta International. Still, forget that Business Traveler Magazine loves the place (Best Airport in North America for a decade straight? Did the editors enter into some macabre pact with Satan?) O’Hare is a landfill. If some intrepid investigative journalist uncovered a swath of asbestos or airborne fungus here, we would react with mild nonchalance. The place is a cold, comfortless warehouse with a penchant for AC, wet carpet stink and sterile fluorescent lights.

The Windy City of Chicago is one of the best destinations in North America. Just try to forget about O’Hare.


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