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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What makes an airport cool?

I've been musing about airports and thinking about my experiences at Melbourne and Perth airports last week and what made them so bad, and reflecting upon what makes an airport cool, what kind of things would actually make the experience so much more fun! The factors that make Melbourne so unpleasant are the lack of comfortable seating and places to relax, poor business and communication facilities, dismal retail and dining options, limited opening hours, a dirty environment, and a distinct lack of character. So that means my ideal airport would be exactly the opposite, and possess the following characteristics:
* an abundance of comfortable seating, from reclining chairs to chill-out sofas and ottomans, in various formations and environments to suit different moods and needs;
* state-of-the-art communications and public business facilities (not only in airline lounges), from free easy-to-access WiFi throughout the airport and desk space with powerpoints for those who want to set up their laptop and work to reasonably-priced pay-by-the-hour lounges for those with long layovers who want to get serious about working;
* a wide range of useful and engaging retail outlets, from gourmet delis and a supermarket to excellent bookshops (not only stocking airport novels) and newsagents, to quality gift stores specialising in local products, and travel shops that don't only sell suitcases, but offer up everything from travel gadgets to tech accessories;

* an array of quality drinking and dining options and no franchises for starters: I want to see clean, quality cafes, restaurants and bars, ran by independent owners who care about what they're doing, and have a desire to sell more than muffins and soggy plastic-wrapped sandwiches. I want fresh food, made-to-order, and variety. Why can't airports have stand-up Italian-style cafe bars where you can grab a macchiato from an barista who knows not to ask "Is that a short mac or a long mac?" And why not proper fine-dining restaurants or chic bistros for those of us with long waits between connections? Obviously there's a place for fast food but can we please give the McDonalds and Subways a miss and only allow quality options, like a wood-fire pizza place or a Japanese sushi bar?
* everything should be open as long as flights are operating: there are many 24-hour airports dotted around the world that can manage this, Dubai for one; there should be no reason to close anything if there are still people streaming through the airport;
* the place should be gleaming; everything in the airport should be shiny and clean, and smelling fresh and lovely - from the public seating to the toilets to the floors throughout - there's just no excuse for grubbiness at a developed city airport in this day and age;
* the airport should be well-designed; from the practical stuff (security, check-in, baggage drop, signage, transport, traffic flow) to the aesthetic (departure lounge seating, shop-fronts, dining experiences, etc), the airport should look cool. It should not only be functional - it should work and be comfortable - but it should have form and style. Airports should look chic and inviting. They should make us want to spend time in them instead of wanting to get the hell out of there the first chance we get.
What do you think? What makes an airport cool for you? My favorites include Copenhagen, Amsterdam's Schiphol, Dubai and Hong Kong, but even they're not perfect. Do you have any favorites?


Allen said...

I share the same views. Liked your blog very much.

Adventure Rob said...

Singapores Changi airport is impressive.

What makes an airport cool though? I'd say stuff which you wouldn't expect at an airport, rather then things like wifi connections and open shops 24hrs which should be a given in my opinion.

Stuff like a swimming pool, sauna, gym, massage parlour, etc would make an airport cool :)

marina villatoro said...

Since I'm a mommy now, the best thing I accidentally stumbled upon in an airport because our damn flight was 3 hours delayed. was a huge indoor playground. It kept my son busy for ONE HOUR! It was heavenly:)

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Allen

Thanks! And thanks for commenting!

Hi Rob

I do like Changi, except it still closes. I can't tell you how many times we've done the long haul from Dubai to Australia and stopped at Singapore for a couple of hours and at 2am it's a ghost town - everything shut except for one shop.

I totally agree with you about the swimming pool, sauna, spa etc, that these extras are the things that would make airports really cool.

I've been thinking about this actually - for the next post perhaps - I'd love to see a cinema too, perhaps small art-house theatres, and why not a small art gallery or museum? Why can't airports be turned into mini-cities?

People would probably stick around longer, not worry so much about choosing close connections - especially if it was a city they hadn't visited before or rarely visited - and they'd spend more money. Sounds like a win-win to me - entertain and amuse travellers and make money?

Hi Marina

Oh yes! Of course! So why don't airports have more things to amuse children? Why don't they have those mini-amusement arcades that they have in some shopping malls? Why aren't airports using more imagination? Seems strange, hey?

Thanks for your comments everyone!

JessieV said...

great topic!! all that you all have said! plus - art, an art gallery, or music - live events, or a cool jazz piano player.

i would also love a quiet space. hmm. brilliant thoughts!

Rachel Cotterill said...

I think seating is the most important if you're not in a lounge. Geneva is my least favourite to date.

jen laceda said...

We were just at Schipol the other day, so that is top of my list. Eating is a big priority so, a good choice of restaurant with reasonably priced menus are positives. At Schipol Amsterdam, they have many interesting restaurants, including Bubbles (oysters and seafood).

What makes an airport cool for me is (I agree with Lara) wifi to be available not just in the business lounges, but everywhere! Also, battery / power charging stations can be useful. In the airport in Minneapolis, they had these charging stations, and so it was great to recharge my laptop, iPod and my daughter's DVD player all at the same time!
Another thing that makes airports cool to me is if I don't have to drag my carry-on for a mile to get to another gate--those "movators" and monorail trains that shuttle you between terminals are such a big help!
Yes, I agree with the book shops as well. When we were in Barcelona Sants, the only English books that were available were trashy romance novels and some Maeve Binchy ones. So disappointing! Gotta have more travel-related publications! I was surprised that some airport newsstands DON'T even carry travel magazines (or maybe we just caught them on a bad day, who knows?). That's you, CDG Paris!

Sarah said...

Schipol is quite good, I spent several years with 11 - 14 hour layovers there about 4 times a year, and it was ok, but not a lot better than ok.
The most insane thing is the cost of a cup of coffee - I don't see the sense in charging an arm and a leg for coffee.
There sleeping areas are quite good though.
Another airport I found incredibly charming was Charlotte NC - very sweet and southern with rocking chairs and life piano bar.
So unexpected.

Mark H said...

I'm with you on the seating and most airports seem to do that badly. I like Changi (singapore) and Amsterdam as excellent airports and alos have found Hong Kong to be pretty good. My favourite bit of HK is that you can check your luggage in in the city and then take the airport train with just your hand luggage. How sensible. Sydney managed to build an airport train line with nowhere to put your luggage and it was supposedly "designed". LAX rates as the worst airport I've been to with disorganised security, horrid food (even for America) and very little seating.

Peter N-H said...

Lara, for lack of a better method of notifying you, see:

replying to an earlier comment of yours.

Sean McLachlan said...

I tend not to notice airports because I always bury myself in a good book. Some airports are bad enough to break through my literary fortification against the tedious mediocrity that is the modern airport (Luton really hits me hard) but I tend to pass through the nicer airports without really noticing them, which is perhaps the best compliment of all.

Gray said...

Brava! I could not agree with you more. I have never understood why food service establishments close when the airport is still open and there are still potential customers there. I, too, would like to see more of a reflection of the local culture at airports instead of the same ol' chain stores and restaurants at them all. Being at an airport should be a positive part of the overall travel experience, not just something we have to suffer through.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jessie - yep, love those ideas - especially the art gallery and live music!

Hi Rachel - agree with you! Seating tops my list too, which is why I hated Melbourne so much. If you have a few hours wait you need to be comfortable, and if like me you want to spread out and work, you need something to put your laptop on and plug in, and cafe tables are often grubby unfortunately.

Hi Jen - couldn't agree with you more. But I would love to just be able to leave my Carry-On somewhere - an easy "Left Luggage" storage would be brilliant, instead of these time-consuming archaic places like they have at Heathrow.

Hi Mark H - yep, pre-check in of luggage is a super idea. You can do that at Abu Dhabi actually, but I don't see why more airlines or airports can't organize it. It would make the whole check-in process so much more seamless - or I'd even settle for less chaotic. I haven't been to Sydney airport in years but their airport train fare seems ridiculously high for such a short distance. I also don't understand how Aussies get these things so wrong, with so many great designers in the country.

Hi Sean - I yearn for the days when I could spend a flight (and waiting for the flight) reading, but I always have some kind of work that needs to be done. And if I can't find a comfortable seat - and one that's in a lounge where the television isn't blaring - I can't settle in to read.

Hello Gray - I'm glad you agree!

Thank you for your comments, everyone - I'm so glad this one generated a bit of discussion. I might pop some of your comments into a new post on "Our Ideal Airport" - I'm travelling again in a few days so I'll think about it some more as I spend many hours to come in airports!

Gregory said...

Most major airports have done this now, but I really like connectivity to transit into or out of the city.
Schipol and Frankfurt are great in terms of actually seeing some of the city, even on a 6 or 7 hour layover. If it is advertised well enough and there are facilities to check/store your luggage, it supports the local economy even for short term visits.
I like the opportunity to get a quick peek at a city, and see if I want to come back for a longer stay.

jen laceda said...

Bon Voyage to you!

Sonya said...

Your blog post reminded me how much I love experiencing new airports.

Dr Sandy O'Sullivan said...

I love this one... I was looking forward to your post on airports and I can't believe I missed it! I think that like most businesses they require what they have to, and what they can get away with... and let's face it there isn't often that much competition. In fact I think that's what Incheon is all about - cos they really have to compete... and actually I find it harder to work out why Changi is so good when it doesn't have to be.

I have to say that the reason I am in Qantas Club is cos I can't stand how dirty the toilets are, and how few places there are to just hang out comfortably. Though it's just a different kind of bad food and coffee. I seriously think that the airports should charge (tax) more and provide more.

cristy said...

LAX is also my least favourite airport. Most US airports are pretty bad though (although Chicago at least has some fun gadgets to play with).

I found Hong Kong a little sterile. Bangkok is terrible (monotonous shops and bad food - which is hard in Thailand), but at least you can get a massage... The food at Vancouver is reasonable and I like the design. I also like the design and feel in Amsterdam. You feel like you are somewhere that living takes place. Changi pretty good, but as you say the hours are silly. Seoul's not too bad.

I don't mind Sydney, but agree that Melbourne is pretty bad. At least Australian airports have decent coffee (by and large).

Ok enough. Interesting thing to reminish about...

missexpatria said...

My two cents!

I'd like for there NOT to be televisions everywhere. I find that really annoying. Instead, I'd like for there to be TV lounges like there are smoking lounges.

I'd like for airports to indicate clearly what services are available before and after security. More than once I've gone through expecting to be able to futz around once I'm closer to my gate, only to find an ocean of benches and not an amusing thing in sight.

Has anyone been to Paris train station Gare de Lyon recently? IKEA installed several groupings of sofas, chairs and coffee tables in the main waiting area across from the tracks. You could literally see people's shoulders coming down from around their ears. And, it made for better foot traffic patterns.

I'd like to see architects stop taking their "soaring flight" metaphor obsession to its logical end, and instead make more intimate spaces (not to be read as cramped; just warmer).

Personally I don't enjoy shopping and I've especially never understood the desire to shop in an airport; but it'd be fun to have an interesting Sharper Image-type travel goods store, where you could try the stuff out as a way to kill time.

NO offense meant to moms out there, but I'd love a separate play area for kids!!

Mani/pedi/massage places would be great as well.

Airports need not only to have more interesting places within their walls, but more flight info monitors so everyone is not huddled around one space. I always feel tied to my gate in case there is a change.

Prêt à Voyager said...

my biggest pet peeve with airports these days is that you don't know if there's going to be food near your terminal/at your gate. seeing as taking food through security is a big risk, this irks me even more. half the time it's a maze just to get to your gate these days, so stopping for food early on just isn't an option.

i love the austin (texas) airport because it has all local chains, so it means really good food and lots of options while you wait. go local!!!


Laura Carroll said...

A dark, dingy, outdated airport is - for me - the biggest turn off when traveling. Nothing's worse than feeling like you don't want to sit down on those dusty chairs, or that you're stuck in a decade gone by. You want to feel like a modern traveler!

As you probably know, London's Heathrow got another awful voting...

I think my favorite airport overseas has been Munich, but then again I prefer to avoid flying all together once I'm in Europe.

Fun post!

Laura Carroll said...

A dark, dingy, outdated airport is - for me - the biggest turn off when traveling. Nothing's worse than feeling like you don't want to sit down on those dusty chairs, or that you're stuck in a decade gone by. You want to feel like a modern traveler!

As you probably know, London's Heathrow got another awful voting...

I think my favorite airport overseas has been Munich, but then again I prefer to avoid flying all together once I'm in Europe.

Fun post!