Travel Comment
Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

I'll take easy transit over free email


What makes for a good airport? And, conversely, what makes for a bad one?

I asked a couple of fellow travellers and they seemed to think a good airport is one which provides great shopping, free internet, plenty of big television screens and excellent coffee.

Not for me. For me a good airport is one which has easy access, quick and efficient check-in, immigration and security systems, clear information on flights and somewhere comfortable to wait.

On the other side of the coin a bad airport, for me, is one where you spend a lot of time waiting in queues in unattractive surroundings, have difficulty getting information about your flight and can't find anywhere to sit and read a book while you wait.

On that basis, on my latest trip I added Paris Charles de Gaulle to my list of least favourite airports.

It started well enough when we arrived two hours before the flight, checked in, whizzed through immigration and moved into the departure area all set to read our books and maybe sip a coffee before the flight.

Alas, what we didn't know is that a) the departure area has no seats (except for a handful in the small cafe area) and no air-conditioning, b) they don't release the number of the departure gate until an hour before the flight and c) the security screening for admission to the gate lounge, which has seats, is the slowest in the Western world.

As a result, passengers basically stand around sweating and mumbling for an hour or so until the gate for their flight pops up on the single, tiny information screen, then stand in a slow-moving queue for the final security check. The screening was so slow that by the scheduled departure time, an hour after the queue first formed, half the people on our flight had yet to be screened. Luckily British Airways was running late.

The terminal isn't scruffy like my other pet hates, Los Angeles and London Heathrow, but I won't rush back.

As for LA and Heathrow, passing through either involves endless queuing in cramped, smelly waiting areas (worsened by having to take your shoes off for the X-ray).

Still, there is reason to hope for better things in the future. At Los Angeles work is well under way on a $1 billion contract to upgrade, expand and spruce-up the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The contract has suffered delays but it is now scheduled to be completed in 2010.

Heathrow also has a vast upgrading programme under way starting with the giant new Terminal 5 - the largest building in Britain - especially built for British Airways.

You will doubtless have read of the appalling problems they had on opening day with thousands of bags being lost. Well, I'm happy to report that our bags passed through safely, so that difficulty seems to have been solved. Furthermore Terminal 5 is spacious, clean and air-conditioned and, given enough room to work in, the security and immigration processes are quick and efficient.

Sadly, of course, we then had to move on to Terminal 3, which is still a pigpen, in order to catch our Air New Zealand flight home.

But at least at Heathrow, like LA, things are moving in the right direction. Work is under way on further improvements, including upgrading Terminal 3, so maybe next time I visit it will be a better experience. Maybe.

Because, using an air terminal doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience. There are plenty of airports which are a joy to visit. And I'll talk about those next week.

- Jim Eagles

What's the worst airport experience you've ever had?

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