Friday, August 23, 2013

On Airports....

   As someone who travels nearly every week, I have encountered innumerable airports, and have become fascinated, and repulsed at times, by the variations in how they are operated. Since an airport serves as a sort of informal ambassador for a city or nation, it would seem worthwhile to examine some of the items which differentiate a good airport from a bad one.

   In short, an airport can be a way for a city to be viewed in a superior way, simply by viewing an airport as more than a slightly high-end bus stop. The most monied people coming to and through your city will experience your airport. Making the experience a great one gives you an edge as a city destination.

   As two examples of airports which I have frequented that are quite good, Munich and Tampa sort of stand out. They are not so enormous that they require orienteering skills to navigate, and they are spacious, comfortable, have free wi-fi, helpful staff etc. Tampa is one of my "home" airports, and I give it extra credit since I have spent enough time there for things to go badly, but aside from an occasional TSA debacle, they've done a great job.

  Since I am giving out compliments I may as well throw a spear. First prize for an airport that makes me insane is Frankfurt. It doesn't even seem German to me (not efficient or organized in any logical way). The complexity of the place, along with the complete disdain I have encountered from staff there is what has prompted me to carefully book connections to/from Wroclaw through Munich. The Frankfurt airport is not visually pleasing, it does not have (at last visit) free wifi, it isn't comfortable, there is not an abundance of restaurant selections. In short, I really dislike the airport, in a visceral sort of way.

   Without further ado, here is my mental bombardment regarding the state of today's airports:

Simplify Transfers

   For some airports this is not an issue at all as all carriers board and disembark at the gate. However, numerous airports around the world use buses as an alternative means of getting people to and from the aircraft. The stated reason is that it is a question of expense for the airline. They make a determination of which method to employ based upon the cost they incur using one method versus another.

   However, there is another question buried within this one. How can it be that the expense of using the gate (which was put there for the express purpose of getting to and from an aircraft) ends up being MORE costly to use than a bus which is operated by an outside vendor? The consensus I have from discussing this with fellow travelers is that the gate fee is set  artificially high, creating an opportunity for an entrepreneur (see friend of someone within the hierarchy of the airport) to run a bus service to shuttle passengers back and forth to a plane.

   Frankly, whatever the bus transfer should go the way of the dodo. It is one more step in an already tedious process of getting from point A to point B. You wait for your gate to open, then board a jammed bus, then are dropped at a plane (often within 100 meters of where your journey began), only to begin a que yet again. It would be least expensive, if somewhat problematic in certain weather, to just let passengers walk to the plane. In Europe and Asia many budget carriers handle things that way, and though you occasionally get wet or cold, it eliminates a pointless additional process.

Free Unlimited Wifi

   To some this might seem a bit silly. Especially if you typically have short layovers. However, for those folks sitting for a few hours in an airport, the ability to "connect" if simply for entertainment value, is a major plus. Moreover, business travelers, who do not always have access to a business lounge, can make use of their prolonged layover by knocking out a few items on their to-do list.

   In anticipation of the issues around trying to provide unlimited wifi to an increasingly video watching, bandwidth consuming audience, you can always pay for it through sponsorship. Offer a business the chance to be the "sponsor" of wifi for your airport. There are innumerable potential sponsors that would have an interest in people's online behavior while in an airport, as well as perhaps simply having the interest of developing a bit of goodwill with the "captive" audience that is waiting for their next "literal" move.

Provide Seats Designed for Humans

  Before the purchasing manager buys seats for an airport, they should be forced to sit in them for over a hour. This would eliminate the sadomasochistic choices which seem to prevail in many airports. People transiting an airport actually need to occupy these seats. They often have, especially in larger airports, long layovers that make an extra bit of comfort quite welcome. Does this actually have to be brought to an airport designers attention.

   Ditto for seat quantity. If the size of an aircraft which can "dock" at a given gate has a maximum of 200 passengers, I'm guessing having at least 200 comfortable seats in the waiting area would be a good idea. The number of times I have had to mind a gate from afar is mind-boggling. Has someone broken the calculators of airport personnel?

Duty Free - Really?
   Here I will be brief. Once upon a time duty free items were actually inexpensive. Now the only reasons to buy duty free is that you want booze for Scandinavia (where almost any price would be a discount from the local one), the other is that you don't feel like exchanging the remaining local currency you have, or finally, you have been away far too long and feel obligated to buy things for whomever at home is a bit sick of you being away. Otherwise, duty free is very rarely inexpensive, and often equal to normal retail prices. These shops will likely die under the weight of their own ineptitude and lack of competitive pricing.

  Restaurants for Human Consumption

   For some reason dining in an airport is often an exercise in either a) paying extortionate rates for pathetic food or b) paying slightly less extortionate rates for pathetic food. 

   Foodies will bemoan my suggestion, but I honestly would love for airports everywhere to open things up to U.S. style chains. While the food is never "awesome" it is consistent, edible, and can be produced for a price that normal humans can tolerate paying even with the inevitable airport markup. Do I think Subway "rocks"? No, but I know the sandwich will be decent enough, and not cost a ridiculous sum of money. Ditto for McDonalds. Funny about McDonalds. Everyone bitches about them, but they seem to sell a lot of food. Probably because, while nobody is expecting an extraordinary experience, they will get filling food and pay a reasonable price.

People will actually need the toilet!

   It is amazing to me how poorly planned some airport bathrooms are. The size of the entryways, the actual quantity of bathrooms, or stalls in bathrooms. In some instances, you can add an apparent lack of concern about the apparent hygiene of the bathroom and you have a truly toxic brew of nastiness. Overused and under maintained, wow. Now that makes an impression.

   This is even more baffling considering the number of people who will pass through an airport must be a pretty predictable calculation. Flights are scheduled, and there are a certain number of people per get the idea. This isn't planning a moon colony. 

The Joy of Taxis!

   One last item, and it certainly ranks pretty high on the list, is the control of taxis at the airport, and the city for that matter. Too often there is no control. And when there is, it is not enforced. People trying to skirt the meter, charge you off-peak rates, the scams are almost endless. In Kuala Lumpur, they have a law that the taxi has to use the meter. Trying getting the driver to follow that one is a bare knuckled boxing competition. They'll just refuse to take you. 

   To me this one resonates with the overtones of "Welcome to Our City - Please Enjoy Doing Business with a Criminal". I realize it might not be easy, but London manages it as does Bangkok. Given the complete difference in cultures the experience should be possible to duplicate.

What Do You Think?

  Am I just a grumpy guy who travels too much (and bitches a lot)? What do you think of airports and your travel experience?  What would you make different? Do you agree that the airport is the "town greeter". Please e-mail me at with your comments. 

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