Editor's column by Louise Driscoll

What makes a good airport and why many have got it all wrong

Airports have our full attention for several hours, yet many still aren’t capturing our imagination.

On my last holiday, I tumbled down an indoor helter skelter, relaxed in a tropical butterfly garden, swam in a rooftop pool and played my partner on an Xbox – and all of this was just at the airport.

Those who haven’t discovered the delights of Singapore Changi airport may want to find an excuse to fly through this bustling Asian hub, which also manages to woo weary travellers with novel things to do.

To me, Changi is the benchmark for what an international airport should be: an airport you actually want to spend time in. Could this be the ultimate 21st century airport for the consumer in transit – the ‘transumer’?

The thought crosses my mind every time I pass through London Heathrow’s Terminal 3 – more a chaotic factory churning out passengers than an airport to be cherished, with none of the ‘fun’ diversions that many Asian airports offer to break up the monotony of waiting for flights.

Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport is a great place to play a round of golf between flights and Kuala Lumpur International offers passengers fresh air in a giant rainforest inside the terminal.

While at Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, passengers are left to make do with a hodgepodge of chain cafés, restaurants and shops. Perhaps the exception is BA’s futuristic Terminal, which never fails to impress with its slick mix of bars, restaurants, shops and lounges and striking art installations bringing a bit of glamour back to air travel – all in a space big enough to house 50 football pitches.

Heathrow may be a hive of shops, but I still can’t help likening the shopping experience to walking through Westfields shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush. Perhaps it’s the promise of “world-class” shopping – and the realisation that I can pick up much of what’s on offer in an equivalent high street store – and probably in the sale.

What I won’t find on the high street are those giant toblerone bars stacked high on shelves at airports spanning London to Sydney. Am I the only one tired of seeing toblerones at every airport I pass through?

Of course some of you reading this may spare little thought for what’s on offer at airports. Heightened security measures have turned terminals into inherently stressful places. We tend to judge an airport more on its security, service and ability to handle delays and cancellations efficiently than on whether it has spa treatments or independent cafés.

If – unlike me- you would rather spend minimal time in the terminal, could that change if more airports found more creative ways to keep us amused, with new, customer-focused amenities?

Sweeteners that might encourage travellers to arrive at the airport earlier could include texting coupons to our mobiles for a discounted meal or spa treatment. Or on a basic level, offering free wi-fi as standard.

Whichever way we look at airports – as glorified bus stations, an inconvenience, or the start of our holiday – airports help form our first and last impression of a destination. And if there was more focus around the customer and differentiation, we’d be more likely to return and spend money: a win-win for all?

Amsterdam Schiphol is a good example of an airport offering something for everyone. Holland’s hub has just opened the first 6D theatre at an airport and is also well-stocked with unique attractions – from flower shops to a library, museum, indoor/outdoor garden and casino. This place even hosts weddings.

Airports have our full attention for several hours, yet many still aren’t capturing our imagination. Airports needn’t be clones of Schiphol, Changi or Hong Kong, but these innovators will no doubt spur those lagging behind.

Many airports are stuck in their ways and lacking in creativity. What’s stopping an airport from offering us ‘optional’ pay-as-you-go services that compliment the airline offering and benefit us? Wouldn’t we be more inclined to pay a small fee for a dedicated airport agent to arrange our onward coach, bus or airline transportation at our destination, than pay for a trolley, for example?

Airports – love them or hate them – represent the start of our journey; a time that brings out all sorts of emotions, from trepidation, to excitement. This behaviour is something airports should look at as a foundation for improving our experience. If we’re going to spend two hours navigating our way around a ‘fortress’, we should have the opportunity to get the best out of our time there.

Until then, I’ll save my holiday money for my next trip via Changi, where I’m hoping for a roller coaster that will propel me to my gate. And who knows, it might actually happen.

What kind of services and amenities would you want to see (or not) at your ‘ideal’ airport? Click here to leave your comments.


What others have said

  1. I’m really not interested in being amuse or intretained at an airport when I travel for pleasure. I have stopped flying 3 yrs ago due to the horrible TSA checkpoint strip seaches that seem to take longer than the flight. I just want to get going, without the sufferring. Slot machines like in McCarren Las Vegas would be intretaining. Perhaps smoking areas at the boarding gates.

  2. I agree Changi is almost worth a stop over on a long trip and Schiphol is certainly “up there” as one of the best.

    Any airport that does not have Free easy to access reliable Wi Fi should not consider its self more than a backwater. I am happy to connect through a simple “accept terms” screen, possibly a basic questionnaire or poll, but that is about it.

    Airports trying to cop-out to third party providers, typically the local national phone carrier to provide a paid service should be ashamed of themselves.

    Invariably they overcharge and are unreliable. Unfortunately I have to say my home town of Sydney falls into this category.

    The problem with paid Wi Fi services at airports, is that they invariably do not function properly. They are often slow, or have sever limitations on connectivity and often simply do not work!

    Bangkok is a good example of overcharged Wi Fi that makes dial up look appealing.

    Another thing that I appreciate is good access to power points near the gates! A long lead power-board is part of my standard travel kit, and I have often had the plugs fully allocated with other passengers feeding off it.

    Quite simply, if I know that I can have Wi Fi & power at the gate, I will be there early and I am much more tolerant of delays. At least I can notify people and make my own arrangements if the delay is protracted.

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