Airports you won’t want to leave.
The pharmacy provides the first clue. Then there’s the dry-cleaning service, followed by the free showers. And suddenly it clicks: You’re not in Europe or Africa or North America anymore. Welcome to the wonderful world of Asian airports.
Singapore Changi, Incheon International (in Seoul, home to the above amenities) and Hong Kong International consistently win “world’s best airport” awards. These three, with their excellent customer service and ability to anticipate needs you never even knew you had, leave the world’s other airports in the dust.
Humans versus cattle or goats
It’s their way of managing size while upholding service that distinguishes the world’s best airports from their counterparts. Changi (50 million passengers per year), Incheon (38 million) and Hong Kong (57 million) are some of the world’s busiest airports, yet passengers are never treated like an unfortunate side effect of running a successful operation. New York’s JFK, by comparison, also sees almost 50 million passengers a year, yet it’s regularly derided for its labyrinthine layout, unfriendly staff and knack for making passengers feel like cattle being herded from one place to another.
Despite the sheer volume, Asia’s airports have developed special services to help those passing through to feel at home. At Incheon, special rooms have been set aside for nursing mothers to breastfeed with privacy. In Hong Kong, passengers leaving the city can simply drop their bags at the train station downtown to be checked onto their departing flights. And those wandering Changi airport with a lost or confused look on their face will likely be approached by a smiling, helpful presence known as a CEA (Changi Experience Agent) — one of more than 200 such individuals whose sole job is to walk the airport halls looking for passengers in distress. The CEAs offer assistance of all sorts, and it’s this dedication to humanizing the airport experience that makes Changi distinctive.
“Singapore’s airport is by far the best,” agrees Shanghai-based fashion designer Nicolas Laville. “It’s peaceful, and you don’t feel like a goat waiting in the queue for immigration.”
Improving the airport experience takes time and money, but making sure passengers feel like people (and not goats)? That’s priceless.
Seoul gets credit for making lines at immigration short and sweet. Waiting times average 12 minutes for those arriving in Korea (versus a 45-minute international average) and 19 minutes for those departing (compared to a 60-minute international average). Efficiency is the name of the game at Incheon, as is hygiene. For the fun of it, try to spot a piece of litter on the ground or a dirty seat at this airport that often tops the Skytrax “Cleanest Terminal” list.
And passengers exhausted after a long flight will be pleased to find quiet, peaceful (and free) rest areas in three of four terminals at Changi. No uncomfortable rows of seats with soldered-in-place armrests here; these lounge chairs have both head and leg rests for comfortable horizontal lounging, and even partitions between them for maximum privacy.
Out and About
But no matter how stellar the airport’s service and comforts may be, a long layover can bore the pants off a traveler. So at Changi, the airport provides free two-hour tours of Singapore to travelers whose itineraries allot at least five hours between flights. Or, passengers who prefer lounging to sightseeing can head up to the Transit Hotel’s rooftop in Terminal 1, where access to the pool, Jacuzzi and showers is free to hotel guests and only US$14 for all others.
Indeed, Asia’s airports offer a mix of sports and leisure activities that should please even the pickiest of travelers: a casino and ice-skating rink at Incheon; golfing at Hong Kong and Incheon; cultural crafting stations at Incheon and Changi; and, perhaps the most unique of all, Changi’s five themed gardens.
“Changi has one of the largest collection of indoor gardens in Singapore,” says the airport’s Sherman Pun. “At any point in time, there are no less than 420,000 plants spanning 600 different species on display.” The grounds include orchid and sunflower gardens, as well as a butterfly garden that boasts more than a thousand winged inhabitants.
And for those seeking a chance to sit back and catch a recent flick, each of the airports shelters its own movie theater. Hong Kong’s IMAX — the world’s first airport IMAX theater — screens both 2D and 3D movies; Seoul’s theater screens international hits alongside a healthy serving of hallyu (the Korean “wave” of pop culture) films; and Singapore has two theaters, both of which show blockbusters 24 hours a day (and both of which are free, making a 30-minute pop-in perfectly possible).
Possibly the thing that truly differentiates airports in Asia from their competitors is that they simply never stop trying — even when those efforts occasionally take a turn for the bizarre. In October 2007, Incheon held a long-drive golf competition on its third runway in anticipation of the runway’s completion. Not to be outdone, Changi raced a Porsche against a Boeing 747 down a runway in 2009, in support of the Singapore Grand Prix. The 747 finished second.
It’s long past time for airports in other parts of the world to catch the tailwind of such efforts and step up their game, because when it comes to travel in Asia, the airports are destinations in themselves.
The next time you book a flight to or from the continent, you just might find yourself choosing the one with the long layover.
Other Airports of Note
A masterpiece by British architecture firm Foster+Partners, Beijing International’s Terminal 3 opened just before the 2008 Olympics. Accentuating China’s national colors of red and yellow, the building calls to mind an enormous, 3-kilometer-long dragon.
Extravagance is on display the moment passengers enter Dubai International Airport, boasting the world’s largest duty-free shop (at 5,400 square meters) as well as shopping kiosks offering actual gold bars for purchase.
Designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, Kuala Lumpur International Airport is known for its eclectic and unmistakable beauty (think Islamic-esque domes and vaulted wooden ceilings with small, star-like spotlights). What’s more, the main terminal building also features a natural Malaysian rainforest, created in cooperation with the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia.
No. 1 for outdoorsy types, Zurich Airport is surrounded by 12 miles of walking/cycling trails. Walking poles and bikes can be rented by those who want to spend their layover out in the fresh Swiss air.
Rather than fill its food court with American airport standards such as pizza and pretzels, San Francisco International made the smart move to tap into the city’s local food scene. Nearly all the food-and-beverage venues here are outposts of San Francisco restaurants and bars, such as Perry’s, a San Fran institution.
Schiphol Amsterdam Airport packs a powerful punch in its one-terminal hub, engaging passengers with the world’s first airport library and the only museum to be annexed in an airport (the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, showcasing the works of Dutch masters).