Timelapse: Inside the world's best airport
A day in the life of Singapore's Changi Airport, one of the world's busiest, portrayed in a stunning timelapse. Video: Changi Airport Group
Most travellers have a love-hate relationship with the airports of the world. You have to love them because visiting one means you're going somewhere exciting, you're living the dream, you're taking off to climes exotic and new. You hate them, meanwhile, for the obvious reasons: the queues, the hassles, the exorbitant expense.
Not all airports are created equal in this regard. Some are more painful than others. Some, in fact, are absolute joys. There are airports out there that offer modern facilities that are exciting and free.
There are some that are culturally significant, some that are scenically beautiful, and some smartly designed and hassle-free. And, of course, there are airports that can boast none of those things
As the summer travel season approaches and we all face the inevitability of an airport experience, we at Traveller thought it time to award the good and the bad of the world's major transport hubs, the bold, the beautiful and the mind-numbingly lacklustre or plain.
Welcome to "The Aeros", our mostly sincere and occasionally tongue-in-cheek guide to airports across the globe. Let the ceremony begin.
MOST IMPROVED EXPERIENCE
LOS ANGELES LAX
Tom Bradley International Airport departure terminal Los Angeles. Photo: Shutterstock
This is like the "most improved" award handed out at school sport, the condescending encouragement given to the kid who's become a little less terrible. The LAX experience used to be horrendous – long waits, lack of facilities, tired old terminals – but the new Tom Bradley International has mitigated much of that, with modern facilities, including restaurants you'd actually want to eat at.
BEST ART INSTALLATIONS
HAMAD INTERNATIONAL, DOHA
Doha's cool, spacious Hamad International airport features plenty of impressive public artworks, including sculptures, paintings and installations by local and international artists. Keep an eye out of The Playgound, a series of eight interactive works by American sculptor Tom Otterness, and Lamp Bear, a huge, whimsical piece by Swiss artist Urs Fischer.
MOST HEART-IN-MOUTH RUNWAY
PARO AIRPORT, BHUTAN
It's the last-second turn that gets you. The approach into Bhutan's Paro Airport, set in a spectacular valley high in the Himalayas, is confronting enough, with forests and houses flashing past your window close enough to touch. Then, however, with the wheels almost on the ground, the plane has to bank hard left to line up with the runway. Only a select few pilots can land here, and only then during daylight hours in clear weather.
BEST CUSTOMS/IMMIGRATION EXPERIENCE
KINGSFORD SMITH AIRPORT, SYDNEY
Don't laugh. Hear me out. We might like to complain about the facilities at our home airports, but where else do you sail through the ePassport line with barely a queue and then, with nothing to declare, sail through the customs line, too? And you're on your way. The staff in Sydney might be overly officious, but if you do everything right you rarely have to talk to them.
BEST PUBLIC TRANSPORT LINKS
The great thing about Zurich Airport's rail link is not just that it can get you into central Zurich in no time, but that it can get you anywhere in the country with very little hassle. These are Swiss trains we're talking. Everything works. And departing is even easier: the SBB service allows passengers to check their bags all the way through to home from the train station, anywhere in the country.
BEST RECENT RENOVATION
Nadi used to be the worst. It was cramped, with barely any seating, it had a couple of very average takeaway food joints, a few dinky souvenir stands and a barely functioning aircon system. This year, however, the airport unveiled its $FJ129 million refurbishment, a new international facility with higher ceilings, more lounges, improved food options, an additional baggage carousel, and new airconditioning.
MOST IN NEED OF RENOVATION
LAGUARDIA, NEW YORK
New York's LaGuardia might just be, pound for pound, The Worst Airport in The World: facilities are poor, flights are often delayed, road access is appalling, and terminals are falling apart. Fortunately, the airport is undergoing a major overhaul, a reconstruction that will cost more than $US2.4 billion, and hopefully make it at least not terrible.
Haneda has its food game on point. Here you can dine at some of Tokyo's best restaurants and enjoy a range of pretty much every style of cuisine that makes Japan great, without leaving the international terminal. Our picks include "tsukemen"-style ramen at Rokurinsha, high-end udon noodles at Tsurutontan, excellent pork katsu at Katsusen, and deep-fried snacks on sticks at Kushinobo.
WORLD'S LONGEST TAXI
If you're on a short flight from Amsterdam, say, skipping over the ditch to London, and you score the Polderbaan runway, you'll spend almost as much time taxiing as you will flying through the air. The Polderbaan is five kilometres from the terminal. It has its own control tower, and it takes planes about 15 minutes to get there.
MOST HEAVY-HANDED SECURITY
Security across the whole of the Xinjiang region in western China is notoriously tight, and you'll find a serious police presence at its main airport in Urumqi. Expect to have your retinas scanned on the way in, be subjected to an intimidating interrogation by immigration officials, and have your baggage X-rayed and searched on multiple occasions.
Arriving at LHR? Once you get off the flight, you're only halfway there. Queues at passport control here have always been lengthy, but recently they've seriously blown out, with waits of up to 2½ hours to get through. In July this year, the British Border Force missed its target of 45-minute waits or less for 95 per cent of visitors.
BEST SPORTING FACILITIES
It might seem odd to combine airports with sporting facilities, but plenty of terminals now offer gym facilities – Chicago O'Hare, for instance, as well as Dubai, Singapore Changi and San Francisco – and some have taken things a step further. Munich offers a wave pool for surfers in the summer months, and Seoul Incheon has a golf driving range.
BEST BRAND SPANKIN' NEWIE
Istanbul's main hub, Ataturk, has been supplanted by an all-singing, all-dancing new facility called Istanbul Airport, which has now commenced limited operation, and will be up and running from the beginning of next year. The new airport is one of the biggest in the world, and will take the code "IST" from Ataturk in 2019.
MOST SURPRISINGLY BAD AIRPORT
Given how amazingly good the Emirates airline is, and how obsessed Dubai is with having the biggest and best of everything, you would expect the city's airport to be top-class. And yet, it isn't. DXB is cramped and crowded, with limited facilities and very little else to recommend it.
MOST SPECTACULAR APPROACH
Make sure you bag a window seat if you're flying into Queenstown, because the approach is worth the price of entry alone. Gaze at the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps before your plane wings its way over Lake Wakatipu and cruises through a deep, verdant valley, eventually touching down with the Remarkables mountain range towering in the background.
MOST BEAUTIFUL TERMINAL
Morocco's main transport hub manages a rare feat, capturing the cultural heritage of the country it services, displaying the best of Arabesque architecture while still being functional. Menara's terminal extension, built in 2008, has a beautiful facade of interlaced geometric shapes that filter light to create a dance of shadows and textures.
THE 'YOU'RE KIDDING YOURSELF' AWARD
We're still not entirely sure how Stansted gets away with calling itself a London airport, given its location almost 30 kilometres north of the M25, the British capital's major ring road, and 55 kilometres from the city centre. That's like Avalon calling itself Melbourne. Oh, wait …
BEST WINE SELECTION
SAN FRANCISCO SFO
San Francisco's main hub offers a pleasing selection of wine tasting opportunities for those who missed out on the Napa/Sonoma experience while they were in town. Inside the terminal, the Napa Farms Market offers flights of local wines to try, and SF Uncork'd has both local wine and craft beer, and Vino Volo has a similar set.
BEST BEER SELECTION
Those who have spent time in Portland would find no surprise in the fact the city's airport has a focus on craft beer. This is a place obsessed with artisanal ales, and PDX has two brew pubs on site: Hopworks, a local favourite in Portland since 2007, and Deschutes, a brewer from nearby Bend, Oregon.
BEST SHOPPING FACILITIES
You take the good with the bad at Heathrow. The queues might be interminably long, but the shopping facilities are great. There's a Fortnum & Mason store here – one of only three in the world. There's also Harrod's, plus every luxury brand you could think of, as well as the more affordable likes of Lacoste, Superdry and Jack Wills.
BEST PANIC-BUY SOUVENIRS
TOKYO HANEDA AND NARITA
Japanese travellers have a charming habit of buying gifts for family and friends, which means Japanese airports tend to be filled with stores selling high-quality local souvenirs. These can range from beautiful stationery to matcha tea sets to high-end foodstuffs to smart items of clothing. Leave plenty of time at Tokyo's Haneda or Narita to peruse.
LONGEST HIKE BETWEEN GATES
DALLAS FORT WORTH
Nothing like adding a little exercise to your airport experience. At Dallas Fort Worth in Texas, the journey from Gate A8 to Gate D6 is 2.25 kilometres – that's slightly longer than the walk from Sydney's Central Station to Wynyard. Of course there's a train at DFW to whisk you from point to point, but the option to hike is there if desired.
MOST BAFFLING LACK OF FACILITIES
SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT, BANGKOK
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. Photo: Shutterstock
BKK is a huge and very busy airport. Too busy, in fact: it's been operating above capacity for years now. That would all be well and good if Suvarnabhumi offered places for passengers to eat and shop, and yet there's a baffling lack of simple services here, the scarcity of food and beverage outlets being the biggest head scratcher.
BEST IATA CODE
OMG! No, not the abbreviation of "oh my God", but the airport, OMG. Namibia's Omega Airport, situated in the country's north-eastern Caprivi Strip, might be a modest little hub, but it does boast one of the world's best IATA airport codes, OMG. Derby Field, in Nevada, USA, also has a good one: it's near the town of Lovelock, so it goes by the code LOL.
MOST UNNECESSARY DRIVE FOR IMPROVEMENT
Hey, Singaporeans: feel free to rest on your laurels for a while. Seriously, you already have the world's best airport, and yet you insist on constantly improving it. Not content with the flashy new Terminal 4, which only opened a year ago, Changi will next year unveil the Jewel (above), a multi-use structure that will feature the world's largest indoor waterfall, as well as 10 storeys of retail and recreational facilities.
THE MOVER AND SHAKER
You still wouldn't exactly call Fiumicino "good". It's ranked 85th on Skytrax's world airport rankings. The story, however, is its rise: last year FCO came in at 158th, making it the most impressive climber in 2018. That's due to a shiny new international departures area with modern furnishings, fancy shops, and restaurants that reflect Rome's gastronomic tradition.
BEST AIRPORT TO SLEEP IN
No need to hunt down an armrest-free bank of seats to catch some zeds in Singapore Changi. The airport has six designated sleep areas, including "Oasis" and "Snooze" lounges with plenty of recliners and long, comfy seats. Even the carpeted floors will do for a bit of shut-eye. Just take an eye-mask, as the lights are always on.
FARTHEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TERMINALS
SYDNEY, PERTH, BRISBANE
You have to love Perth Airport's website, which breezily states there are two separate terminal precincts, "separated by a short, 15-minute drive". Sorry, a what? Australian airport designers do have a habit of separating domestic and international terminals. Brisbane's hubs are four kilometres apart (take a bus or train), and Sydney's require a similar commute.
BEST CITY WITH THE WORST AIRPORTS
NEW YORK, USA
Start spreading the news: if you're leaving New York City today you're in for a painful experience, because each of the city's three major airports – John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark – are crowded, crumbling and lacking in basic amenities. How, you wonder, could such a fine, modern city be served by such horrendous facilities?
BEST AIRPORT OVERALL
The departures hall at Terminal 3 at Changi International Airport in Singapore. Photo: Alamy
We're saving the best for last, our most sincere award to the airport that really is head and shoulders above all others: Singapore Changi. We salute you, Changi, for your four terminals of almost unnecessary perfection, for your rooftop swimming pool, your koi pond, your orchid, butterfly and sunflower gardens, your excellent and affordable restaurants, your shopping options, your whisky store with free tastings, your lounges, your hotels, your space and comfort. There's no place better.
FIVE FREQUENT TRAVELLERS NAME THEIR FAVOURITE AIRPORTS
JAMES THORNTON, CEO, INTREPID TRAVEL
King George Island, South Shetland Islands
"It's not exactly an airport, but the most memorable arrival experience I've had was at King George Island, where you're setting foot on the Antarctic Peninsula. The first thing you do is step in to disinfectant, before walking the length of the runway and navigating your way through a Chilean Naval Base. Meanwhile, your luggage is being transported by tractor. Most airports are forgettable, but this was the start of my most memorable travel experience."
LOUISE LAING, DIRECTOR OF MARKETING, G ADVENTURES
"My favourite is Brussels in Belgium. The last time I was there it was July and coincided with Tomorrowland, the world's largest music festival, which is held about 40 minutes away. The airport had partnered with the event and they had live music set up throughout the terminal. People were dancing their hearts out in the middle of the airport. It created such a great vibe, and made me want to miss my flight to join the party!"
BRETT MANDERS, PILOT, JETSTAR
"Honolulu airport is pretty cool on take-off. It's a beautiful smooth runway, and you do an early turn and fly over the beach at Waikiki, which is pretty nice. You're disappointed to be leaving, but it's a pretty spectacular departure. My least favourite airport would be any where air traffic control tells you they're going to give you a delay straight after you've told the passengers what time they're going to arrive!"
KATE BAKER, GENERAL MANAGER, UTRACKS
"It's Charles de Gaulle Airport for me. The gateway to Paris and the rest of France, this airport was my first European landing and still holds bucketloads of nostalgia. The clear tubular moving walkways are still there from 30 years ago. And I love that you can take a fast train directly from the airport to Provence in around three hours."
SUE BADYARI, CEO, WORLD EXPEDITIONS
"My favourite airports are those where your flight takes you directly through mountain terrain: Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lukla in Nepal, Leh in Jammu and Kashmir, Juneau in Alaska, Paro in Bhutan, and Queenstown in New Zealand. In most cases these airports require manoeuvring through a valley fringed by mountains to arrive at the airstrip. I find total inspiration in the scenic splendours, not to mention the network of walking trails that can start the minute you arrive."
FIVE TIPS FOR KILLING TIME IN AIRPORTS
GET YOUR STEPS UP
Air travel is a necessarily sedentary pursuit, so why not spend your downtime in the terminal stretching your legs? Most mobile phones these days have pedometers built into them: challenge yourself to get to 5000 steps, or even 10,000 if you have a long layover.
FIND THE TACKIEST SOUVENIR
Trying to find a really good souvenir at an airport is a frustrating and thankless task. Instead, try to find the very tackiest knick-knack the terminal has to offer. This hunt for the lamest keyring or tea towel is sure to eat up an hour or so, and you might even be tempted to purchase as a reminder.
No need to spend money to kill time: plenty of airports offer freebies if you keep your eye out. At Singapore Changi you can bag a free whisky tasting at the duty-free shop, or even do a free 2½-hour tour of the city. Taipei offers free showers, Munich has free movies, and Seoul Incheon has a free museum.
TREAT YO' SELF
No need to suffer through a long transit without the good things in life. If you have plenty of time to kill, treat yourself with a trip to a day spa or a massage parlour. Plenty of airports in Asia offer both facilities, while Dubai, Heathrow, Amsterdam and Hong Kong all have high-quality, paid-entry spas.
Extra-long layovers make the idea of paying to access a lounge far more attractive. After all, if you're going to spend $50 or $60 on food and beverages outside, you might as well splash out a little more and enter a lounge with unlimited snacks and booze. The website loungebuddy.com offers paid access to lounges around the world.
FIVE AMAZING AIRPORTS THAT ARE COMING SOON
Beijing's new airport is due to open in September 2019 and will feature one of the largest passenger terminals in the world. If you're flying China Eastern or China Southern, expect to call through this 700,000-square-metre facility.
Berlin: great city, terrible airports. Tegel and Schonefeld are notoriously old and tired; however, by 2021 the city will have a new facility, Brandenburg, a multi-billion-euro airport adjacent to Schonefeld.
LONG TANH INTERNATIONAL
Ho Chi Minh City is finally getting a new airport: Long Tanh, which will be located 40 kilometres to the east of the city and is due to open in 2025. The airport is expected to host up to 25 million passengers per year.
NEWARK TERMINAL ONE
New Jersey's Newark Airport, which services New York City and is one of the USA's oldest hubs, is finally getting a facelift, with a $US2.7 billion Terminal One complex set to replace the crumbling Terminal A in 2022.
Construction of the Western Sydney Airport in Badgerys Creek is now underway, meaning by 2026 Sydney will have a shiny alternative to Kingsford Smith. The new facility will cost $5.6 billion and accommodate up to 10 million passengers a year.