What makes a great airport

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Jun 8 2014, 06:35am hrs
Delhis Indira Gandhi International Airport has just been selected as the second-best airport in the world for its service quality (among airports handling 25-40 million passengers a year). The awards are given by the Airport Council International (ACI), a body of airports, which covers 1,751 airports in 174 countries. Thats quite an achievement, considering the competition and the kind of development and vision being directed at what a modern airport should be and the facilities and passenger amenities on offer. I flew in for the first time into Heathrows new Terminal 5 recently and while its obvious that a humungous amount of money has gone into its making, the signage left a lot to be desired when it came to exit points and pick-up areas. The multi-level layout is largely responsible, which is where the question of what makes for a great airport arises.

In most airports abroad, airline and airport staff have been drastically cut because of online and self-service check-in facilities. The original airline check-in counters are where you drop off your baggage, nothing more. Its meant to speed things up, but often it slows things down because the passenger in front cannot figure out the computer commands or has entered the wrong digit/digits. In these days of falling airline revenues, if your bag is slightly over the limit, you need to retrieve the bag, go to another counter to pay the excess baggage charge and come back to rejoin the queue. Technology can be a great boon, but also a real pain if you are in a hurry to catch a flight. So what kind of features can make catching a flight a hassle-free experience

Flying is inherently stressful. Theres the waiting, the queuing, the crowds, the luggage, the announcements and the wandering kids. While the number one priority for most passengers these days is access to free Wi-Fi services, theres also a lot to do with design and personal likes and dislikes. For me, an airport, no matter how well designed, fails the test of a great airport if the washrooms are dirty and not regularly cleaned. The second test is the security procedures, the attitude of the security personnel and the layout of the security check area. A good airport employs enough people to get passengers through both security and passport control as quickly as possible. Some airports get overwhelmed by the number of passengers and poor planning. You can spend hours waiting in a queue like I once did at Los Angeles airport because of a number of flights leaving around the same time and the staff unable to cope.

Proper signage is next on my list. Charles de Gaulle is very retro chic, but no help when it comes to orientation. Signage is a mix of pictograms and symbols while some signs are in French. At many airports, the sign systems are very good as you disembark but then the trail is lost and it stops. Next is the number and availability of seats, not the ones with restaurants or bars attached, but comfortable seats where you can sit back and read a book or work on your laptop in relative peace and quiet. There are some gorgeous airports like Oslo or Copenhagen which have such limited public seating that it puts you off. A great airport will have plenty of outlets and plugs in the seating area so you can charge your phone or plug in your laptop. Then there are the food outlets. Im not a great fan of fast food chains, so I like airports where there is enough choice for a good variety of food and at various price points. Delhi airport is ideal with its many restaurants as well as a food court for variety. Abu Dhabi was the worst; limited eateries and very rude staff.

Retail outlets occupy the maximum space at airports, but its important that they are all together for convenience and choice, especially rival brands, and not scattered all over. Its irritating buying something you like and then finding a cheaper version on route to the boarding gate. Another high-priority area is transport links. Having to travel 50 or 60 km after youve landed is no fun. In New York, Newark airport is the nicest, but its a 60- to 80-minute drive. At Hong Kong, the Airport Express takes passengers from downtown to the airport in 20 minutes. The Heathrow Express is equally convenient. The gold standard is Singapores Changi airport, number one on the ACI list. There are comfortable areas for sleeping or watching TV, work desks and free Internet. For a reasonable sum, you can take a shower or a swim in the rooftop pool. Theres a bus tour of Singapore offered free, arranged so that passengers dont have to clear immigrationthe airport retains your passport. There is a butterfly garden, movie theatres, spas and a four-story slide to keep the kids occupied. For that matter, Delhi airport is also a pleasant experience. You can shower, catch a nap in a sleeping pod, the gates are not too far away and the retail, food and entertainment areas are well-designed and close together. For those who remember the days when it was government-run and a smelly, embarrassing mess, to now, clean, slick and privately-run, is the difference between the earth and the sky.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express