Increasingly, international airports are the index of cities. Particularly for global travellers, the airport creates a first impression of the city. It is also their last brush with the city before they return home. Typically, travellers are also at their weariest when they reach airports — either they have had a long and tiring flight behind them, or they are longing to get home. So, how an airport treats them is etched in their minds for a long time.
Over the past six months, I have transited and contemplated several international airports in Europe, Asia, China and India. Here is my understanding of how international airports impact our perceptions of cities.
The comfort factor: I begin with toilets in airports, a most primal but critical facility. To me, how good the toilets are indicates whether the city cares for your comfort. Is there a toilet close at hand when you land or when you rush towards the boarding gate? How spacious is the toilet, and how long does a man have to wait ever so impatiently to answer nature’s compelling calls? And finally, is the place fresh and spanking clean? European airports come out with flying colours. In Chinese airports, one has to hunt somewhat harder. And our own spanking new Bangalore airport appears to have taken the stance that toilets are an entirely wasteful use of space. Give your city a full 20 points if your airport scores well here, and zero if it does not.
The welcome factor: How well the airport handles immigration indicates how welcoming the city is. Does it take you less than 10 minutes to clear the immigration desk? Does the immigration officer smile at you and speak in a friendly manner, or does he seem to be a dour-faced officer of the law looking for the first excuse to arrest and deport you? Is he neatly dressed and does he speak a language you can understand, preferably a global language such as English? European airports score well, though the queues are sometimes frustrating. In China, the officials are smartly dressed but language is a complete barrier. I have found Indian airports have improved dramatically on this factor. In my past few travels, it has taken less than 5 minutes to get through immigration, and the tone of conversation has been welcoming. Give your city another 20 points if your airport scores well here.
The efficiency factor: A high-speed travel link to the airport indicates the city’s approach to efficiency. Can you be sure of always reaching the airport from the city centre in less than an hour? If the city cares for efficiency, such a link is normally in place. European airports once again get top marks — Heathrow, Zurich and Frankfurt have superb high-speed rail connections to the city centre, indeed to the rest of the country. Hong Kong and Shanghai are also brilliant. Other Chinese airports such as Shenzen and Tianjin have excellent approach roads, but suffer from the lack of a high-speed rail link which is so convenient and beats any likely traffic snarls.
Indian cities are clearly the worst on this factor. It may take anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours to reach Bangalore and Mumbai airports from city centre, and you have to endure painfully unending traffic. Once again, give your city either 20 points or mark it zero.
The future-readiness factor: The scale and capacity of the airport indicates how future-ready the city is. If the current terminals you are passing through have peak capacity to handle at least one-and-a-half times the current level of traffic, the city rates well on this factor. Because in most cities, air traffic is likely to grow 50% during the next three years, and it takes around this time to plan and build a spanking new terminal. Chinese airports score by far the best on this factor — without exception, they are massive, sometimes to the point of appearing somewhat cavernous and empty. These airports make it strikingly clear that Chinese cities are planning their infrastructure at least a decade ahead.
Indian cities come out worst on this factor, indicating how poorly our cities have built their infrastructure for the future. The brand new Bangalore international airport, for instance, is already bursting at its seams. Again, does your city score 20 or zero on being ready for the future?
The globalization factor: An airport also indicates how globalized the city is. The best indicators here are the coffee shop and the bookstore. Does the airport boast a Starbucks, the world’s best known coffee-shop brand and the brew which most global travellers are most comfortable with? And does the bookstore offer a wide international choice in English, in addition to the local language? I was pleasantly surprised to see that most Chinese airports now offer Starbucks coffee, though the bookshelves are almost entirely in Mandarin and finding a copy of The Economist or Time magazine is impossible. Western European airports offer both Starbucks and excellent bookstores, so globalization is complete. Indian airports are fast improving—we now offer Lavazza coffee, though not yet Starbucks, and our bookstores are among the best worldwide. Twenty or zero?
You will note I have not rated here the quality of factors such as check-in, boarding gates, good air conditioning, functioning escalators and a host of other facilities. Because I think these are now essentials which every international airport should possess, and in most cases they do.
Now add up scores on all five factors: comfort, welcome, efficiency, future readiness and globalization. If your airport has scored a total of 80 or more, congratulations; visitors will most likely speak well of your city and will love coming back. But if the score is 60 or less, the airport is doing a disservice to your city. If we wish to showcase our cities to the world, the airport is a good place to begin.
Harish Bhat is chief operating officer (watches) of Titan Industries Ltd. These are his personal views. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org