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The Ups and the Downs of Airports: Accolades and Criticisms All Around

January 26, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

When was the last time you arrived at, or left from an airport and actually enjoyed the experience?

Those who have had the experience of landing at Lagos, Nigeria; Bombay, India; Karachi, Pakistan, or even San Juan, Puerto Rico, will need no further evidence that at least for them, whatever pleasure they had in flying to these destinations was immediately forgotten in the nightmare of confronting their respective airports.

Security issues aside, most airports have no excuse for not being designed better to make flying easier and more comfortable.

The case is often made that airports were designed for the convenience of airlines, not people.

There are a number of airports around the world (and even a few in the U.S.) that make flying more than just tolerable. They are thoughtfully designed and are efficiently operated.

If you're flying to Europe, try landing at Copenhagen. At Kastrup Airport, 70% of all operations belong to SAS, one of the most efficient airlines in the world. The airline handles the other 30% belonging to 43 international carriers as well. Most travelers find the 23-year-old terminal and its 30 check-in counters a very efficient operation. More than 25,000 bags are quickly sorted, loaded and unloaded daily. SAS catering makes more than 22,000 hot and cold meals a day for outgoing flights.

Thanks to SAS' computerized planning system, most transfer passengers do a minimum of walking--75% of them never have to change boarding piers when changing planes. There is an abundance of free baggage carts and it's not unusual to see a handful of SAS two-wheeled scooters parked near the boarding gates for airport personnel. It is also not unusual to see a late and harried passenger borrow one to zip to the gate.

Within One Complex

Some airports look as if they were designed by a conspiracy of sadistic labyrinth-lovers. Not Amsterdam's Schipol, easily one of Europe's most negotiable airports. All its gates are within one well-planned complex.

Of all the European airports, the one that comes closest to being a well-managed city is Frankfurt's. Located on 10 square miles about five miles southwest of the center of Frankfurt, the airport is not just functional, it's fun.

About 50,000 passengers a day come through the airport; more than 32,000 employees work there; 77 international airlines (and more than 200 charter companies) fly into Frankfurt. There are 102 shops, 26 eating facilities, four movie theaters, a discotheque, the biggest airport medical clinic in the world (three doctors and a staff of 50), and even a dentist.

Maybe that's why more than 4,000 people who aren't traveling flock to the airport each day just to visit. The German attention to detail and precision is proudly displayed at Frankfurt's airport. And the baggage reliability is unparalleled.

One airport that comes close is Changi in Singapore, one of the smoothest, cleanest operations I've ever encountered. It runs smoothly, and things seem to happen on time.

In England travelers are anxiously awaiting the opening of the new Terminal Four at Heathrow airport which should ease things up a bit. But my favorite remains Gatwick Airport, which is everything Heathrow isn't. Baggage is delivered quickly to the carrousels. Customs clearance is fast. Within 12 minutes of getting your bags you're on the Rapid City rail link between Gatwick and London's Victoria Station and 38 minutes later you're in town. (Gatwick is served by 350 trains a day.)

Despite its uncrowded nature, Gatwick is a busy jumping off point to other European destinations. The airport offers direct, scheduled flights to more than 120 cities in more than 60 countries and has direct flights to 13 cities in the United States.

Airports in France have enjoyed a fairly surly reputation, but I am a grudging fan of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The design makes it a fun place to visit, and the airport features a wide variety of shops, delicatessens, record and clothing shops. And the airline VIP club lounges in Paris are worth every penny of membership.

Built With Future in Mind

There are few excellent big city airports in the United States. The Tampa airport is expansive and was built with the future in mind. The air traffic there doesn't begin to fill the airport's capacity.

Salt Lake City is an extremely well-designed facility. Access to the airport is easy, and while there are some long walks to the departure gates, the airport isn't overcrowded (except on some big ski weekends).

Newark is my favorite New York area airport. The old terminals were depressing. Today the airport is bigger, brighter, and operates more efficiently than any other New York area airport. If you're going into the city, it's faster to land at Newark and take the bus than to catch a cab at Kennedy and negotiate traffic. It's also cheaper.

Seattle gets the nod as another well-designed airport and it never seems crowded. I have never been stuck in traffic getting to or from Sea-Tac, even in rush hour.

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