Around the world in 40 years. Part 9. That is the trouble with flying: we always have to return to airports . . . (Henry Minizburg)

Maybe you’re a frequent flyer. Maybe not. How many of the flights you have taken were memorable? I hardly remember one flight from another (unless they were the two occasions when I was invited on to the flight-deck, on LH and EK flights, for the landing at Manila (MNL, RPLL). On the other hand, how many airport experiences – good or bad (mostly bad) – have you experienced?

Unless a flight was really bad – lots of turbulence, poor service, etc., you’re more likely to remember your airport experience. After all, for some journeys, you can spend more time getting to and from the airport, waiting for your flight to leave, or passing through immigration and customs on arrival, than you actually spend in the air.

Ever since I flew for the first time in 1966 – a short flight from Glasgow Airport (GLA, EGPF – then called Abbotsinch) to Benbecula (BEB, EGPL) in the Outer Hebrides on a British European Airways Viscount – I’ve passed through at least 180 airports worldwide. Since then, Glasgow has become quite an important hub for the west of Scotland, with many international airlines flying there. Benbecula is probably still the same – a small hut for a terminal building.

Now of all these 180 or so airports, some were just a transit stop en route from A to B; and others just a single visit or two.

On the other hand there are airports like Birmingham (BHX, EGBB) , Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila and Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO, MROC) that I must have passed through many, many times – since they are/were my home airports for many years. And yet again others, like Hong Kong International (HKG, VHHH that replaced Kai Tak), the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St Paul International, MSP, KMSP), or Narita in Tokyo (NRT, RJAA), are important hubs that I’ve passed through frequently over the years. Furthermore, I have traveled through MSP a lot (and still do) because my elder daughter Hannah and her family live there.

So what makes a good or a bad airport experience? And I’m sure we all have different criteria and tales to relate. As I was thinking about this, these are some of the ideas that came to mind:

  • the airport itself, its facilities, and capacity to handle passengers; travel to and from the airport; does it have one large terminal (such as Amsterdam Schipol, AMS, EHAM) or several like London Heathrow (LHR, EGLL) or New York JFK (a nightmare, JFK, KJFK) with all the headaches that can bring;
  • the check-in experience (depends on the airline to a large extent);
  • the immigration and customs experience;
  • connecting time between flights and the ability of the airport to handle tight schedules;
  • and then there’s the physical location of the airport and whether that can affect the takeoff and landing experience – as I’ll illustrate later on.

Some airports are well past their sell-by dates, and should have been demolished years ago. Although a new airport terminal was built at Manila a decade ago, it didn’t open for several years (a dispute with the company that financed its construction). Terminal 1 at NAIA is certainly not one of the most comfortable to travel from. The operators are always patching up the services, and there never do seem to be enough seats for everyone who needs one. But after almost 20 years of traveling through NAIA many times a year I can state unequivocally that the airport works and, most of the time on arrival, immigration, baggage handling and customs are really rather efficient. And of course (most of the time) one is greeted by a beautiful Filipino smile. I wish airport staff around the world were half as courteous and friendly as those you meet in Manila.

I was always wary of traveling through Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos (LOS, DNMM) in Nigeria in the 90s. Immigration and customs staff could be quite menacing, and would always look for something in your bags to confiscate. The common question was’ What do you have for me?’ I’d always reply: ‘A big smile’ and then gave a big cheesy one. But they never did get anything off me. I wonder how things have changed since I was last there, more than a decade ago.

In Asia there has been an incredible airport boom – at Singapore’s Changi International (SIN, WSSS), Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport (KUL, WMKK) in Malaysia, and Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK, VTBS) in Thailand, and Hong Kong, of course. Another iconic airport, with a terminal building over a kilometer long, is Kansai International (KIX, RJBB) in Osaka, Japan, constructed (like Hong Kong) on an artificial island in Osaka Bay.

Some of the most difficult airports to pass through are in the USA. Many don’t have a transit area and even if you are only changing from international flight to another, you have to pass through immigration and customs. Not the easiest thing to do if you have a tight connection and there are a couple of other jumbo loads of  passengers waiting in the immigration queues ahead of you. US border staff are often not the friendliest. It must be tough sitting there facing a sea of faces every day. London Heathrow has become renowned for its difficult immigration, and that was a major concern ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

As I’ve been fortunate to travel business class on many long-haul flights, I’ve been able to take advantage of airline lounges in which to relax while waiting for a flight – a boon if there are delays. The Emirates lounges at Dubai International (DXB, OMDB) are superb.

In many airports it’s now difficult to view aircraft traffic easily from inside the terminal building. One of the best – when the airport was open – was the Cathay Pacific lounge at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, with a view looking right down the runway from one end to the other. It was fascinating watching even the biggest jets manoeuvering above the apartment buildings and making the final sharp right turn to line up on the runway. It’s also quite an experience on board!

Now Kai Tak could be challenging for many reasons, as is the ‘new airport’ because of frequent crosswinds. But the landing on the short runway after a challenging approach at Tegucigalpa’s Toncontín International Airport (TGU, MHTG) in Honduras takes the biscuit. I flew in and out of there quite a few times in the 70s – never a comfortable experience.

I never visited Bhutan, but one of my staff, Eves Loresto, traveled there several times between 1995 and 2000 in connection with our Swiss-funded rice biodiversity project. Paro Airport (PBH, VQPR) in the heart of the Himalayas is considered one of the most demanding airports in the world, as this landing video shows. Only small jets operated by Drukair land there.

As I started this post, I suggested we’d all have our own stories to relate. And certainly while I have had some excellent flights (like when I was upgraded to First Class on my first A380 flight from DXB to BKK on EK), most of what I remember about those journeys has invariably to do with my experiences of the airports. What are yours?

2 thoughts on “Around the world in 40 years. Part 9. That is the trouble with flying: we always have to return to airports . . . (Henry Minizburg)

  1. Martin jackson says:

    Were you travelling Third Class on the flight from Abbotsinch? most Viscounts, as I recall, had FOUR engines:-)

    • Mike Jackson says:

      Viscount? Correct. Text corrected. That would have been 1966 when I spent a few days with you and Pauline in Rutherglen before heading off to the Hebrides for some birdwatching.

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