- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

Flight delays are all too common these days, but if you have to wait around for hours, why not do it in style?

It may be difficult for many Americans to believe, given the state of U.S. airports, but there are airports in the world where one can enjoy spending time. I was reminded of that recently while waiting for a delayed connecting flight in Hong Kong.

Not only is the airport one of my two favorites, it was named best on the planet in a global survey released last month. It’s efficient, clean, easy to navigate and displays architectural finesse.

My final destination on that trip was Singapore, my other favorite airport, which came in second in the survey of 8.2 million travelers conducted by Skytrax, a British research group.

“In recent years, the whole air travel experience has become much more focused on the time customers spend in the airport environment, and Hong Kong has established itself as a clear passenger favorite,” said Skytrax CEO Edward Plaisted.

Most travelers spend a long time at airports not by choice, but because their flights are delayed or the prospect of waiting in huge lines forces them to arrive too early. Thus, there are two main groups of passengers: those in a hurry and those with time to kill.

The first group usually cares only about getting to the departure gate quickly - either from check-in or from an incoming flight. That means having clear signs, speedy passage through security, immigration and customs, as well as short walking distances.

It’s a bonus if the airport passengers are dashing through is also clean and customer friendly. Those factors are more important to the second group of passengers, who need time to pass quickly - and walking around a tidy, spacious, well-decorated terminal definitely helps.

The planners of Asian airports seem to have understood all that better than their colleagues elsewhere. One only needs to remember the recent fiasco at London Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, while the seamless openings of terminals at Beijing Capital International Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport were barely registered by Western media.

Those two state-of-the-art terminals have won praise around the world. In Singapore, a beautiful carpet and a rain-forest-canopy-like roof add to the coziness created by the design, and parts of the terminal resemble a botanic garden. The terminal also features luxurious business lounges and an elaborate playground.

In its 10th annual survey, Skytrax asked respondents to rank the world’s top 190 airports based on 39 criteria. San Francisco International Airport was named best in North America, Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss in Europe, Cape Town International in Africa and Buenos Aires Ezeiza International in South America.

None of the Washington area’s three main airports - Ronald Reagan Washington National, Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport - made the list this year. Dulles is consistently cited by travelers as one of the worst in the country because of difficult access, often lengthy security lines and particularly long waits in the immigration hall.

Whether you believe Washington belongs on the list or San Francisco doesn’t - travel forums on the Internet are buzzing with comments on the survey - most travelers would agree with the choice of the top two airports.

Hong Kong and Singapore have shared the top spots since 2000, with Hong Kong coming out on top every year except in 2000 and 2006, when Singapore won.

San Francisco airport Director John L. Martin attributed his airport’s success to increasing the number of shops. Perhaps now he can work on improving transfers between terminals.

Contact Nicholas Kralev. Also visit his blog “Kralev on Diplomacy.”

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