The world's worst airports
Trying to get away in the modern age is enough to make anyone terminally frustrated. As a new survey nominates the worst airports in the world, our foreign correspondents choose their least favourite flight paths
Wednesday 28 November 2007
So many unpleasant things can happen at airports. Flights missed at great cost, and greater inconvenience; terminal delays; rudeness at immigration; body searches at Customs; interrogation at security; missed connections; lost luggage; or bomb alerts that force everyone out into the cold.
Then there's the merely dull: the interminable queues, the hours before take-off, the boring shopping, the long walks to the departure gate. And when you've almost, finally, got through it all, there's the mild stress you feel as you reach your seat, your hand baggage is stowed overhead, and you wait for the discomforting air pressurisation.
My most dismal airport experience was removing my shoes for them to be X-rayed at Heathrow in January. Luckily, I was wearing good socks. But as I stood shoeless on a patch of frayed carpet, in the dreary armpit of civilisation that is London's flagship airport, the sheer indignity of it killed any lingering association between air travel and glamour.
A few of the 2.2 billion travellers who fly annually suffer a far worse fate. A new guide to the world's most awful airports, by Foreign Policy magazine, doesn't even include Heathrow in its top five. Instead, it offers: Dakar in Senegal; New Delhi in India; Mineralnye Vody in Russia; Baghdad International, Iraq; and Charles de Gaulle in Paris.
Starting with the most dangerous (it's in a war zone), it notes that planes landing in Baghdad have to execute a "stomach-churning" descent in case of missiles, before travellers head downtown on the "highway of death".
Dakar has no seats and travellers are targeted by hawkers, porters and security guards who move them on. Immigration takes three hours.
Delhi? Aggressive beggars, syringes on the terminal floor, filthy bathrooms. Mineralnye Vody, near the Chechen border, seems a throwback to Communist Russia, with feral cats and a list of local murderers pinned to the wall. The verdict on Charles de Gaulle? "Visitors to Paris should expect more than grimy terminals, rude staff, confusing layout and overpriced food..."
According to our own pundits – The Independent's foreign correspondents, whose own "worst airports" are listed on these pages – the hazards can include anything from AK-47s and organised criminals to the famously rude officials at US immigration.
Why are airports so bad? Perhaps it's because travellers are not so much customers as captives, and airports exploit them without mercy. Got to wait for a few hours? Why not stroll through the soulless shops and pick up some overpriced bauble? For most of us, the abiding experience of airports is not horror. It is tedium.
The worst airport is the one I have to use most often: Beijing Capital International Airport. Although generally very efficient, it is blighted with nervous ticks and quirks as to make it both lovable and infuriating at the same time. The introduction of Norman Foster's new terminal in time for the Olympic Games will most likely change air travel in the Chinese capital completely. It has had some minor cosmetic changes in recent years, but it remains a throwback to the days of central planning and socialist realism.
This is no consumer paradise – mostly what's on offer is shrink-wrapped fruit and cheap panda dolls. And don't even think about buying a foreign newspaper – most are banned from its precincts. There is a useful row of trollies for holding your hand luggage as you disembark, which are taken away, 30 metres later, as you approach the first of many customs and health checks. And a lack of slots means that domestic flights are sometimes parked in what feels like the city of Tianjin, leaving you stuck on a bus for half an hour as you head back to the terminal. Initial changes ahead of the Olympics include the removal of the emergency exit notice reading: "No entry on peacetime". And I shall miss the hands-free sign above the taps saying: "Unnecessary touching".
Other candidates include Kunming in south-west China, which signalled its true intentions in the early Nineties with a sign on the runway saying, "We welcome our foreign fiends", and, of course, Dublin, which has queues that would put the old airport in Bangkok to shame, although this, too, is being upgraded. Constantly.
Madrid Barajas masquerades as the Spanish capital's shiny new airport, with its undulating Terminal 4 designed by Lord Rogers. But it's really a huge shopping mall, where travellers feel as if they could get lost, perhaps for years.
Just to reach the boarding gates, passengers have to tackle a 20- or 30-minute walk, past lines of shops that are of little interest if your flight is leaving in the next five minutes.
Personally, I'm not clear why the Spanish authorities are not more honest about the real purpose of this airport that stretches on into the horizon, rather like the African plains. But, thinking about it, that would give the game away; people might think that, as they had arrived at Barajas, they were virtually in Madrid. In reality, their journey has only just begun.
Earlier this year, a British couple lost their dog in the airport. It wasn't found for weeks. This came as no surprise to weary travellers such as me.
Other European horror shows include Malaga (enormous but still not big enough); Venice (constant delays, in spite of which the bars and restaurants close early); and Athens (virtually guaranteed to lose your bag).
I nominate Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris. The old part is a cramped and crumbling concrete doughnut with no windows; and the new part, or second terminal, is actually six terminals, scattered and difficult to find your way around. Part of it fell down in 2004, killing five people.
Marginally less awful, but only just, is Beauvais, north-west of Paris (a Ryanair hub). This has developed in past 10 years from a prefab in a muddy field to a tent in a muddy field and, now, a new cardboard building in a muddy field. It's miles away from Paris, and only reachable by a long coach-ride.
Bad airports aren't exclusive to France, however. John F Kennedy in New York is tatty, scattered about and poorly interconnected. Dublin is always being torn down and rebuilt; it never seems to be finished and never seems adequate enough to cope with all the extra air-passenger traffic generated by the budget airline Ryanair and the Irish economic boom.
The former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd once described Heathrow as a " camp" – and he was getting the full VIP treatment every time he passed through. The very word conjures images that are almost wholly negative: the foreigner-baffling approach to Terminal Four, which always feels like a temporary diversion, but isn't; the massive, shuffling queue of arrivals at passport control on, say, a Saturday evening, calculated to dissipate any surge of homecoming euphoria; the mournful stocks of hairspray and aftershave discarded at departures; the breathtaking costs incurred by anyone ignorant enough to take a taxi into the city, and – more personally – the peculiar humiliation of being forced, on a bleak winter's morning after a sleepless 20-hour flight from the Far East, to pay in duty half the cost of a Hong Kong-made suit that falls apart two days later.
Maybe it's no one's fault. Security is a fact of life – though Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, apart from the too-well documented harassment of even Israeli Arabs, seems to do it so much more efficiently. And the sheer volume of traffic means that expansion of Heathrow, even at an unfathomable environmental cost, will never be enough. Perhaps it's simply a necessary reminder of how most of us fly too much.
Runners-up are Baghdad, because of the world's most terrifying approach road and – a cheat, this – Gaza International Airport, which has been closed for seven years. This is a potent symbol of how the high hopes for the Strip, once described by Yasser Arafat as a future Singapore, have been destroyed since the Nineties.
The marble walls and floors of Delhi's Indira Gandhi international airport are the colour of dead flesh under the fluorescent lights, the carpeting is a thin scarlet runner, and paan stains are splattered in corners. Creature comforts are negligible. Passport control takes an eternity. Half the trolleys are broken down. They force you to x-ray your luggage coming in to the country as well as going out. The taxi stands strategically located before the exits snare innocent tourists and charge them several times the rate of the regular taxi wallahs outside. The duty-free shops are a joke.
Still, there are others; Heathrow is horrible; Frankfurt destroys the soul; Dhaka had no signboards the last time I was there, and Mae Sot (in Thailand), in my experience, has no airplanes.
Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport is "a symbol of the international cooperation which became absolutely vital after the Second World War". At least that's how the "EuroAirport" website tells it. It's a tri-national gateway to Switzerland, France and Germany – all of which co-exist in perfect aviation harmony. Great in theory. So very, very bad in practice.
It would probably be OK if Basel were an entirely Swiss-run, neutral affair. But it ain't. Although it boasts a Swiss "sector," it's actually in France. The facilities are tolerable, even if it's light on shopping, and the faux-Tyrolean caff in the "French Sector" refuses to open before 9am. It's also difficult to get back in, should you wish to go to Switzerland but mistakenly leave through the unmarked exit for France. But what really makes Basel into airport (or EU) hell is the Carestel News Café. The circular bar, perched between French and German departure lounges, has one French waiter. Sandwiches are displayed on the French side of the bar. And the French waiter stays that side, too.
The minimum one-hour journey from the city centre, battling along a traffic-choked motorway, is a poor introduction to Jakarta's airport. Things don't improve much when you arrive. First, the check-in desks at the international terminal are confusingly concealed behind a false wall. And don't even bother trying to find airline ticketing desks: like me, you'll just end up wandering the terminal, getting more and more frustrated.
The cafés and duty-free shops are woeful, so it's tricky to while away the time before a flight. If your flight is delayed, there's a small and expensive hotel within the international terminal.
Jakarta's domestic terminal is always manically busy, and if you need service at a ticket desk, you have to use your elbows. Facilities are pretty basic. On arrival, taxi touts can be oppressive.
The only saving grace is that the many failings of Jakarta's airport are counterbalanced by the courtesy of its Indonesian staff. My other contenders for the world's worst airport are Bogota, which is an extremely scary place to emerge from at night, and Heathrow; I have to use it to return to Australia.
Baghdad airport is hell. It is approached down a dangerous highway. Suitcases and cars are searched, and searched again. Everything is done in a miasma of fear. Everywhere, there are cement blast walls and razor wire to impede the enterprising suicide bomber. On reaching the terminal, there are four more searches to go through.
Some passengers fall at the first hurdle: they do not have an exit visa. Why this is necessary is unclear, but it adds to the earnings of the Interior Ministry. Last year, I saw a wounded French photographer with shrapnel through his shoulder being turned back. You cannot get in to the airport complex without a ticket, but this may not be enough. Some airline staff systematically sell more seats than there are on the plane. It is wise to be first in the queue. One American whom I was standing next to almost had a nervous breakdown when he was "bumped", and paid a $1,100 (£500) bribe to get back on. The departure lounge is also testing, because there are no announcements.
It can be argued that all American airports became the world's worst after September 11, as queues for security became hellish, and struggling carriers cancelled flights. I retain a special dislike for LAX. Nothing approaches the horror of American Airlines losing control of Terminal 4 when – at least on a couple of occasions – it refused to staff the check-in desks adequately and made no provision for passengers with imminent departures. I missed my flight, and I'm guessing at least half of the distressed crowds did, too. Over at terminal one, the security queue often snakes hundreds of yards outside.
Experts have pointed out that the queue itself is a risk – any terrorist could drive by with a sub-machine gun. The scrapping of in-flight meals on domestic flights has caused fresh hell on the other side of the security gates, too, giving passengers the choice of queuing all over again for overpriced sandwiches and coffee, or going hungry for hours on end.
There's nothing bad about Rangoon's Mingaladon airport in itself. It's clean and bright – and the recently completed facilities hum with efficiency – but I shall always associate it with a feeling of intense anxiety. The last time I visited Rangoon (or Yangong, as it's officially called), like 99 per cent of journalists who ever fly there, I was posing as a tourist and convinced the authorities would catch on.
In the past, I've had similar stomach knots flying into Havana: the Cubans are also reluctant to give journalists visas, so I was trying to cover the preparations for Fidel Castro's 80th birthday while posing as a holidaymaker.
In Burma, I was lucky and flew in and out without a hitch. In Cuba, I was detained for hours after foolishly getting out my laptop in the departures lounge. Officials put me on a later plane, though not before confiscating my notebooks.
Elsewhere, Delhi International airport is a maelstrom of honking taxis, frenetic hawkers and languid cows. Flying into Haiti always required a leap of faith because of a large sign at Port-au-Prince's airport warning that it was the only one in the world which the US Department of Transportation said did not meet "international security standards".
The approach into Mogadishu's international airport – swooping over unspoilt white and orange beaches, the deep, blue waves of the Indian Ocean crashing into the shore – is one of the most beautiful in Africa.
The arrival is quite different. Insurgents battling government and Ethiopian troops throughout the city have been known to lob the odd shell in the direction of the airport. A week after The Independent last visited, a plane was shot down. To leave the airport requires an escort of at least four men with AK-47s.
In a country where Al-Qa'ida's East African wing is now considered fully operational, Somali immigration officials are naturally keen to ensure no one unauthorised smuggles their way through immigration.
Unfortunately, the checks seem to consist of little more than handing out letters informing disembarking passengers: "After a thorough investigation it has been established that 'insert name here' is not a member of Al-Qa'ida."
No other African airport is likely to be bombed as the plane attempts to land. But there are a handful of others which scare passengers in different ways. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the seven-minute helicopter ride from airport to city on old, rusty Russian-made helicopters (flown by old, rusty Russian-made pilots) makes it an experience to forget.
Kinshasa is a nightmare in a different sense. At some airports the corruption is low key – a $10 note here, a "something for my tea" there.
At Kinshasa things are far more upfront and strangely businesslike. Want to collect your bag? That will be $20. Want to get your passport stamped? That will be $10, plus an extra $10 if you want it done today.
Disappointing is the word that best sums up the world's busiest single-runway airport. Nowhere makes me more eager to leave the country, while making it more difficult to do so. It's the South Terminal I really loathe. Once you've made it to the end of the interminable security queue, past the understaffed security checks and into the claustrophobically circular airside concourse, you're in a maelstrom of human traffic, hemmed in by mediocre shops. Want a coffee? Choose from a array of fast-food outlets. They serve a proper coffee at the North Terminal, so why not here? Still, at least they've got ride of the depressing smoker's box, sandwiched between McDonald's, Wetherspoon and Garfunkel's. Once you've managed to get out, the passages leading to departure gates seem to be in a permanent state of renovation, with no end result. Arrive back late and you're faced with an £80 taxi fare into London or a miserable wait in the run-down station.
Moscow Sheremetyevo, a drab shoebox of an airport I have the misfortune to find myself in every couple of weeks, gets my vote. Reachable by a single road that also leads to Ikea, St Petersburg and half the world's dachas, it can take three hours to get there from the city centre.
Once there, the only acceptable food option is a TGI Friday's that takes an age to prepare the simplest order, frequently meaning you throw the money down and run to check-in without being fed.
At passport control, scan each line for anyone of black or Asian appearance and pick the one with the fewest such people – the border guards give anyone who isn't Caucasian extra hassle.
Finally, you'll be accosted by an army of taxi sharks demanding £50 or more to get to the city centre. Bargain them down to £25, get into a Lada that reeks of petrol fumes, and look forward to that three-hour drive. Welcome to Russia!
If it wasn't for Sheremetyevo, my vote would go to Yerevan, Armenia. The airport is fine, but every time I go I forget that on leaving there's a mysterious $25 "tax", payable only in Armenian drams and handed to a hirsute Armenian in an unmarked booth who doesn't take credit cards and gives you a slip saying "Passangar Departure Tax".
The last time I was there, I almost missed my flight as I sprinted around different corners of the airport trying to find a cashpoint that was working so that I could pay the fee and get out.
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