What makes a terrible airport (and what would make an amazing one)

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To mark Lonely Planet’s sponsorship of the iconic 1917 Curtiss JN-4 ‘Flying Jenny’ Biplane’s commemorative air tour this summer we’re exploring aviation's history and continued impact on travel. Here we take a look at what makes a terrible airport - and what would make an amazing one.

You can find out more about the Jenny’s progress around the USA, and this history of this beautiful plane at www.friendsofjenny.org.

Even a casual observer with no idea of what it's like designing, building and running an airport can immediately blurt out a list of glaring airport flaws and ways to improve the experience. I know, because I asked this exact question on social media and rarely have I been inundated by such a flood of fuming responses.

'Sunset airport' by mrhayata. CC BY-SA 2.0.'Sunset airport' by mrhayata. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Alas, it appears to me that when airports are designed, architects have a short list of priorities: accommodate planes that need huge parking places, leave space for shopping, toss in a useless design element to impress fellow architects, and perhaps sprinkle in questionable art exhibits. Other considerations, duly listed below, are apparently an afterthought, with certain unnamed airports covering nearly the entire Fail Bingo Card.

Difficult or expensive to access

The enormous space requirements sometimes mean airports need to be built way outside the city. We can't fault them for that. However, in these cases the onus is on the airport to arrange for easy and affordable access for passengers, not punish them with a convoluted 1.5 hour journey that costs US$25, with a shamelessly profiteering 40-minute US$50 'express' service. If you've made simply getting to your airport more arduous and expensive than just taking a bus to any destination within 500 miles, you've screwed up.

Dog in a carry-on. Image by Robert Mooney / Flickr / Getty Images.Dog in a carry-on. Image by Robert Mooney / Flickr / Getty Images.

Multiple layers of security

Not knowing that one has to endure two (or more) security lines, particularly for layovers, has caused roughly 27,697,173 people to miss their flights in the past decade, according to data I just made up. But seriously, redundant security, often slow and poorly staffed, may be the biggest airport shortcoming and totally avoidable crisis creator in commercial aviation. Furthermore, that security checkpoint just before the gate preventing people from bringing the overpriced food and drinks they purchased in the terminal on board is a total jerk-move.

Not enough power outlets

Even airports that consider themselves major hubs are guilty of this one. Furthermore, if one's airport is prone to frequent delays and cancelled flights [cough-Newark-cough], there really should be, like, a wall of outlets. On every wall. Any airport that wants to be taken seriously should accommodate the fact that modern travellers carry two, three or more electronic devices on every trip and these things need to be fed.

Image by Matt Kowal. CC BY-SA 2.0.Image by Matt Kowal. CC BY-SA 2.0.

No food or drink vendors after security

This is a huge burn on the people that followed the rules and got to the airport two hours early. Never mind that all manner of eating/drinking needs can arise in two hours, but if the plane is delayed even a little, all of a sudden passengers are not only stressed out, but they're hungry! Why more riots don't happen because of this, I don't know.

Terrible and expensive food options and/or no food sold at night

That anyone thinks people will spend $8 for a crappy, stale sandwich in any situation barring an emergency still leaves me mildly amazed. With that option and the usual selection of grease-soaked fast food, it's no wonder people have started packing small picnics into their carry-on bags. Furthermore, a small bottle of water should not cost US$3, San Francisco airport! Also, the administrators of 24-hour airports that don't sell any food at night should be tied up and shipped to The Hague for violating the Geneva Convention.

Not enough seats

All it takes is one or two small departure delays in some airports and suddenly there's a sea of irritable people sitting on the floor. This kind of debacle shouldn't be as common as it is.

Taking a 10-minute shuttle bus from the gate to the plane

Clearly, there's been an extravagant logistics failure when this occurs.

'Fun at the airport' by lunchtimemama. CC BY 2.0.'Fun at the airport' by lunchtimemama. CC BY 2.0.

Inescapable CNN, at nightclub volume

This is more personal injustice than airport failing, but it belongs here all the same.

Crappy signage

Unforgivable.

Other dishonourable mentions

Let's see...  passenger pick-up/drop-off fees, lack of natural light, lack of staff in general, and every bathroom for 200 meters being closed for cleaning simultaneously.

The airport wishlist

Detroit Metro Airport by eschipul. CC BY-SA 2.0.Detroit Metro Airport by eschipul. CC BY-SA 2.0.

So what facets would make an amazing airport? Well, I've done some feasibility research and I've come up with what I believe are some reasonable suggestions.

  • Free wifi, turbo speed.
  • Water fountains, coffee and ice machines every 50 feet.
  • Showers that aren't outrageously priced.
  • Dedicated napping areas.
  • A local history and cultural centre, with food court, so people with long layovers can get a taste of the destination even though they never left the airport.
  • Responsive TSA, meaning when lines get long more stations open up immediately.
  • Free taco and ice cream buffet.
  • Always Happy Hour.
  • Sun deck.
  • A 15-minute shoulder massage and a cupcake for every two hours your departure is delayed.
  • Instead of moving walkways, slides.
  • Farmer's market.
  • Petting zoo with balloon animal sculptor.
  • No construction, ever.
  • Personal GPS devices for every passenger, that show exactly where everything is and step-by-step directions on how to get there quickest.
  • Do away with the planes all together and instal a human pneumatic tube system.

Leif Pettersen is a Lonely Planet author, freelance travel writer and polyglot. He’s visited 51 countries (so far) and can be found at @leifpettersen.