I'm starting to think that Auckland International Airport could be the best in the world. Or at any event the best small international airport.
Oh, sure, I have criticisms of the way it exploits its monopoly position to cream both airlines and passengers, and of the appalling access arrangements, but in terms of the service provided to passengers it is pretty hard to beat.
The departure area has long been excellent. I've never had to queue for more than a couple of minutes to go through immigration and security. There are plenty of seats, the refreshment facilities are fine, the shops offer a good range of New Zealand and duty-free products, and you can even make free local phone calls.
And since the recent revamping the arrivals area is even better. Unfortunately the airport has followed the overseas trend of forcing passengers to weave their way around (monopoly) displays of duty-free goods to reach the arrivals hall. But once you get there the passport processing seems faster and my bag seems to arrive more quickly.
On my latest trip I was among the first off the plane, there was no delay at passport control - with that wonderful, cheery, "Welcome home, sir" - and yet by the time I got to the baggage claim area suitcases were already being tossed on to the delivery belt. In fact if there's a criticism it's that they went on so thick and fast that quite a few fell off on the way round.
It was a very impressive performance.
But, then again, there are a lot of very impressive airports out there and many of them are a great deal bigger and busier than Auckland and so have a tough job.
Singapore is firmly on my list of favourite airports because it's always great to use. And Hong Kong, which regularly rates as the best airport in the world, is even better. If you're flying to Europe on Air New Zealand and you have the choice between going via LA or Hong Kong there's no contest.
Earlier this year I went for the first time to Zurich and Amsterdam-Schiphol airports and immediately added both to my favourites.
Arriving in Zurich was a breeze - clean, pleasant, efficient - and a dramatic contrast with the hassles of getting through London-Heathrow a few hours before. I had my bag and was out waving for a taxi within minutes of landing.
Similarly, leaving from Schipol was amazingly smooth, with minimal queuing and a charming departure area with ample room for all, even though it was clearly a busy time and there were a lot of passengers around.
Every time I go through somewhere like Schiphol I can't help wondering why other airports - the likes of LA and Heathrow, or for that matter Sydney and Brisbane - aren't as pleasant to use.
Don't the Americans, the British and the Australians realise how important it is for a country to have an attractive front door? Don't they realise how easily an airport experience can persuade travellers to go elsewhere? (LA is the prime example of that.)
Fortunately we seem to have learned that lesson and our front door is one of the best.
In the 2007 World Airport Awards, Auckland was rated second behind Sydney out of the Pacific airports but I don't agree with that at all. Sydney might have a bigger range of shops but its security check arrangements, especially for transit passengers, and its immigration setup, are both quite inadequate and always involve tediously long queues.
What the awards did recognise is that Auckland's staff are excellent - they were rated as the friendliest in the world - which in my experience is a well-deserved honour (though I have struck a few grumpy cafe workers in the early hours).
Now if the airport company can only do something about the duty-free monopoly situation and the rotten access and ...
- Jim Eagles
What's the best airport experience you've ever had?