The worst airports in the West

Of all the things Western civilisation has got right, airports aren’t one of them. Whether privatised, as in Australia and much of Europe, or government-owned, as most are in the home of capitalism, the USA, the balance between user-friendliness and efficiency is elusive.

When Australians look at the world map, three of the airports in the top five to get their business are shockers: the rabbit warren of London Heathrow, the controlled chaos of Los Angeles and the creaking and patched up Bali Ngurah Rai.  

But it’s LAX – in the middle of its first facelift in 30 years at a cost of around $12 billion - is likely to cause the most grief in the next few years.

According to Sydney Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, LAX was the world’s second-fastest-growing airport in 2013, with passenger traffic (three-quarters of it domestic) increasing by 4.7 per cent.

Dubai was the runaway leader with annual growth of an astronomical 15.2 per cent.

Officials at the government authority that controls LAX, Los Angeles World Airports, have begun warning that renovations at the airport, that have mostly been behind the scenes, will soon start affecting passengers directly.

With the detachment of an executive far from the consumer coalface, the managing director of media and public relations at LAWA, Mary Grady, almost cheerfully declared: “Now you're going to start to feel the pain. Ultimately, it's work that has to be done to transform this airport."

The Associated Press of America reports LAX is gettting new roads, upgraded restaurants with Los Angeles themes and some terminal makeovers “that will infuse more sunlight into otherwise cave-like interiors”. Also in the plans are new bathrooms and toilets, as well as more outlets and USB ports for charging electronic devices.

Part of the point is to make LAX more than just a place travellers go to get somewhere else, AP enthuses. “It's reminiscent of bygone days at LAX, where an architecturally striking restaurant at the centre of the airport once was pitched as a dining destination for people who had no plans to fly.”


Yeah, right. But not if you’ve just got off a 13- or 14-hour flight from Australia. If you’ve travelled with Qantas or Virgin Australia, you will have most likely arrived at the New Bradley International Terminal at the western end of the terminal complex, where refurbishment is continuing. Delta and United have their own terminals (5, 7 and 8) further east of Tom Bradley.

If, like me, you have done you own itinerary to get the best prices on domestic connections – for example, with Southwest Airlines in Terminal 1 at the opposite end of the road access circuit through LAX – then you will have experienced all the thrills of lugging baggage long distances and hailing buses, which should not be attempted with less than a three-hour connection.

It’s almost the same degree of difficulty as changing planes and terminals at London Heathrow, where my enduring memory is of having my favourite sports jacket handed to me in small pieces after it had been devoured by a baggage loader, after doing the terminal shuffle to connect with a flight from regional France.

Oh for the quiet Asian efficiency of Singapore Changi or Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok.

But it’s not everywhere in Asia. Bali airport was patched up with yet another makeover of its terminal complex last year as it tries to accommodate a forecast 20 million passengers a year by 2017. It was designed to accommodate eight million and is already hosting more than 12 million.

Unable to expand the land area it occupies or lengthen its main 3000-metre runway to take long-haul jets, there has been talk in the past few years of building another airport on the north side of the island to relieve the pressure.

But most of Bali’s existing tourism infrastructure is built around the current airport and international tourists won’t want to bussed to the backblocks to get to and from the island.

According to Michael Boyd, CEO of the aviation research and forecasting firm Boyd Group International, "The best experience in an airport is the one you don't remember."

I disagree. The airport that regularly wins awards as the world’s best airport, Singapore Changi, is instantly recallable by millions of travellers for its ease of use.

Are you heading for LAX in the next year? Have you been there before? What are you experiences of it? Have you recently used Heathrow? If you’ve been there in the past few months, what do you think of the Bali renovations?