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April 03, 2007

Richard Florida

Airports and Cities

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Over at All About Cities Wendy Waters has a fantastic post on airports:

"Journalist Tyler Brule addressed this recently in the International Herald Tribune.   Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he suggests creating an Airport Quality of Life Index (AQOLI) as a counter to the various human resources consulting firms "best places to live" and "best quality of life" indexes.  He looked at London and New York: Heathrow versus JFK. Well, if you had to decide on whether to stay in New York or London on the basis of those two airports, you'd be on the next flight out. My more limited observations of these airports mirror his jet setting experience : they're generally crowded, understaffed, unclean, inefficient, and exhausting. ...

I thought about a variety of airports that I've been through in the past few years on several continents and you know, a lot of them did accurately reflect the city and the country.... Take China.  Modernizing fast with a new (or renewed) entrepreneurial spirit. The airports in Shanghai and Xian reflected this. They were clean, efficient, and modern in appearance and function and very spacious. ... By contrast, the Islamabad airport is absolutely stereotypically a reflection of what it's like to travel around the city and Pakistan generally. New attempts at security create bizarre dysfunctional and inefficient lines and chaos without providing much sense of safety. Every passenger is accompanied by a dozen family members to see them off, create a mob scene and traffic congestion with honking horns, even at 3 AM. There's lots of human energy and excitement both with hangers on and the staff at the airport, but it seems to lack some leadership to channel it into productivity.
It was a contrast to fly from there to Dubai.  There, the airport is a perfect reflection of the city: everything to grandesse, every modern airport convenience imaginable, great efficient staff from all over the world likely capable of helping you in almost any language. Incredible shopping while you wait. Extravagance and comfort.... Dubai and China airports seem to reflect the image the country wants to portray: modern, global, and economically successful. They are designed as a deliberate first impression.

I agree with Wendy and Tyler. The most immediate impressions I get of a city are from the airport, the taxi or car to my destination, and the hotel I stay in. I am always amazed that folks who say they want to improve their city's image forget about this. BTW, I think the index is a fantastic idea.

Tell us about your impressions of airports.  Which ones captivate you and why?  Which convey a sense of the city they're in?


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Have been in a huge amount of European airports. The one to love before all the others: Copenhagen!!!! No other place is so nicely designed and makes you feel at home. Always try to get an extra hour there to have dinner, do some shopping etc. If you ever have a chance to go via Copenhagen - do it!!!!

The one to avoid - Charles de Gaulle (love Paris, hate the airport) - usually go via Beauvais to avoid CDG). The staff on CDG is always on strike or are just being rude..

The Brussels airport is extremely boring too...ugly AND boring...a bad combination :-).

Flying within Europe got more boring when the tax-free sale stopped some years ago...it effected almost all the airports...but not Copenhagen :-)!!!!!


Have been in a huge amount of European airports. The one to love before all the others: Copenhagen!!!! No other place is so nicely designed and makes you feel at home. Always try to get an extra hour there to have dinner, do some shopping etc. If you ever have a chance to go via Copenhagen - do it!!!!

The one to avoid - Charles de Gaulle (love Paris, hate the airport) - usually go via Beauvais to avoid CDG). The staff on CDG is always on strike or are just being rude..

The Brussels airport is extremely boring too...ugly AND boring...a bad combination :-).

Flying within Europe got more boring when the tax-free sale stopped some years ago...it effected almost all the airports...but not Copenhagen :-)!!!!!

John Whiteside

I actually got to like CDG after a couple of trips through there (but I don't love it). Gatwick in London's a nightmare.

DC's DCA is great; it's lovely, it's manageable, it's modern. (Dulles is a horror of inadequate signage, though.)

I like Houston Intercontinental. Big, fairly efficient, modern. If they could just fix the terrible parking garage signage and provide some kind of decent transit service from downtown, it'd be great. Because it's a gateway to Latin America, it always feels very energetic and international; I get a kick out of strolling past gates for Managua and Quito en route to my flight.


Great comments. The contrast between National and Dulles is mind-boggling. I tell the leadership of the Greater Washington area this all the time. If you want to improve the image of the region, FIX DULLES. It is beyond horrendous.

I agree on the issue of ranking methodology. My sense of how to do this is a Zagat-like ranking. The Zagat people essentially use a "consumer voting" model to rank restaurants. Seems like the most sensible way to do it for airports as well.

john trenouth

I'm surprised you like Beauvais Charlotta--last I remember it was a canvas tent in the middle of a soggy rural field crowded with unruly Spanish backpackers attracted to Ryan Air's 7 euro Barcelona flight like flies to a evening lamppost. I guess it had a ceratin camping charm.

I've always liked smaller airports, Like Victoria BC, Springfield MO, Bellingham WA, Burbank CA. Not much for aesthetics, but as a traveller you're in and out in minutes. Last time I was in JFK it tool an hour and twenty minutes to get out.

Vancouver's airport is really nice, a lot like a high end spa: quiet and airy, with running water, surrounded by trees and the smell of evergreens when walk outside. Welcome to lotus land.

Michael Wells

My alltime favorite is Singapore, it's really a small town with butcher shops next to the Chinese herbalists and high end jewelers. All laid out to make any upscale shopping center jealous.

Portland, OR is very good, largely because the designer Shelley Klapper, who went on to be an international airport consultant, wanted a nice place to fly out of at home. It has a couple of simple strategies that make it user friendly -- the airport shops are local companies so it doesn't feel generic and people actually go there to shop, and there's a "street pricing" policy, things cost the same at the airport as they do downtown - no $12 plastic wrapped sandwiches like so many places.

I agree with John, smaller airports are the way to go. Fly into San Francisco through Oakland and NYC through Newark. By the way, using the smaller, close-in airports was part of Southwest's original strategy. As the big carriers moved out to the New International Airports like O'Hare and Dulles, Southwest moved into Midway and National -- where people could get in and out of downtown easier -- and stole a large part of the business market.


I too am a big fan of small and smaller airports. I much prefer National over Dulles. JFK is a nightmare though I'm not sure Newark or LaGuardia are much better. I am a huge fan of Austin. We just flew into Palm Springs which was amazing for an older airport - it made use of lots of outside spaces. Now if you could only get into smaller airports directly without a connection.....


These comments piqued my empirical interests, so I did a quick google. There are several sites that purport to rank airports using a Zagat/user-ranking system. Check out Flightstats at: http://www.flightstats.com/go/Airport/airportUserRatingsByRating.do?queryType=0&x=7&y=19

Here are their rankings for the most rated airports:

4 star
Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport
Hong Kong
Changi Airport/ Singapore
Barajas Airport
Franz Josef Strauss Airport

3 star
Suvarnabhumi Airport
George Bush/ Houston
Dublin Airport
Malpensa Airport
Ben Gurion
Gatwick Airport

2 star
Charles De Gaulle Airport
Indira Gandhi International/ Dehli Airport La Guardia Airport

Smaller airports dominate the list of top-rated: Austin, Hilo, Lahore, and Helsinki for example score 5 out of 5.


Must add - don't like Beauvais :-) But it is relatively better than CDG :-)...at least it is a rather effective tent :-)!


Correction to Michael Wells' post: Southwest has never flown into (Washington-Reagan) National Airport. It originally entered the DC-area market by first flying into Balitmore (BWI), which is now such a large operation that it's a de facto hub for them. Southwest actually recently started service to Dulles, partially to solidify its position in the DC market in the face of JetBlue and AirTran, and in the wake of the collapse of Independence Air (which had a great customer service brand but a terrible cost structure & business plan). National is probably too congested for Southwest's criteria. Dulles has major customer service issues in terms of the passenger terminal complex, but the airfield is fairly efficient for aircraft maneuvering.

Moreover, Southwest has begun to move away from the "alternative airport" model as that market has diminishing returns since there are more successful low-cost carriers (i.e., competitors) saturating the budget market, to the point where most of them are mining more traditional high-volume big-city airports (like JetBlue at Boston or Southwest and Frontier at Denver).

Silus Grok

I'll second ( or is that third? ) Charlotta's hearty endorsement of the Copenhagen/Kubehavn airport... very nice.

Beyond that, I've enjoyed the Boise ( yeah, who knew? ) airport... a modern, friendly, small-city airport. Very nice. The opposite of Boise is Las Vegas — garish and malodorous. Somehow fitting.


While I agree that an airport's look-and-feel and customer service environment can make a big impression to a newcomer, this whole issue needs to be taken with a grain of salt (Full Disclosure: I speak as a professional airport planner who used to work at Dulles). Airports, particularly their airport passsenger environments, are often the reflection of both local political/economic leadership and ambient architectural trends AT THE TIME they were built. Over time, with the changing aviation industry, what was once considered cutting edge can seem outdated and obselete, but with the limitations of capital budgets and construction costs, still hang on as functional facilities.

Take the wonderful new-ish terminal at Austin, TX. Austin didn't suddenly become "cool and hip" because of it (and remember it is an entirely new airfield from an abandoned air force base, so it had a clean slate). It is a reflection of Austin as local leadership wished to express it in the 1990s/2000s when the new airport was developed. Who knows whether it will be as beloved in 2030?

Or, take two small airports in South Carolina: Greenville-Spartanburg (GSP) and Columbia. GSP's terminal was built in the 1960s and as such the terminal was built with a raw concrete modernist architecture which has not aged well with time, giving it a bunker-like feel. However, the building is in decent shape, it is relatively clean and uncrowded, and does its job. While I would love for it to be replaced on aesthetic grounds, it is hard to make an economic case for it. Columbia's terminal was radically updated in the 1990s as a beautiful post-modern interpretation of Carolina architecture: open, airy spaces with glass on the roof to let in lost of light, and white columns to pay homage to traditional architecture. Functionally it is not so different than GSP, but it has the benefit of being closer what people expect nowadays from large public spaces in airport terminals.

Of course, has budgets have tightened in the post-9/11 aviation world, many such features aren't as compelling (I've seen this first hand in now-dormant designs for new gate concourse at Dulles).

Speaking of Dulles, the Airport is in the midst of a $3 billion-plus captial program to bring it out of its 1950s/1960s Eero Saarinen interpretation of the then "modern" jet age and into the 21st century reality of being a global gateway and hub. The airport was largely in slumber as a white elephant until the late 1980s, when United began its hub there. After that, there has been a lot of incoherent architectural band-aids grafted onto an increasingly outdated terminal complex with its throwback "mobile lounges" connecting the main terminal to the outlying concourse buildings and free-standing aircraft parking stands. The current capital program began with expanding the existing Saarinen terminal by doubling its size, and will culminate in a new runway, new gates/concourses, and most significantly, an Atlanta-style undergound people mover married to a significanly retro-fitted Main Terminal passenger screening/processing area. So what many are observing now is the massive "excuse our dust" issues on top of all the previous issues, creating a genuinely chaotic environment that is frustrating on many levels. However, you can begin to see some results of the better parts of the capital program - such as traveling through the newer, wider, brighter Concourse B, and using the new daily parking garages adjacent to the main parking lot. I agree there are still a lot of problems, which weren't helped by goofy management at a bankrupt United coming up with yet more terrible band-aids such as the apron-level bus connecting to their Greyhound-like United Express Concourse G (now abandoned after less than two years since Concourse A was abandoned by Independence). Wait about 5 years, and hopefully many of these problems will be ironed out. The biggest question mark, and it's a critical one for a the capital of the world's most powerful nation & economy, is the processing of arriving international passengers. The existing immigration/customs processing is terrible, and will still be reliant on those mobile lounges for the forseeable future (a proposed dedicated international passenger-only underground people mover was canceled in the post-9/11 cost-cutting). What is probably needed is a much more ambitious and comprehensive stand-alone international facility similar to what Atlanta built at its Concourse E.


Thanks for the thorough response MPS...Airports are expensive pieces of infrastructure, and because they were built in the 60s and 70s -- often with little upgrade funding since -- some cities have awful airports.

I think another problem is jurisdictional -- airports are often creatures of a multitude of governments simultaneously (certainly in Canada, but I'm sure elsewhere as well because of their costs). Thus there are often three of four separate government bureaucracies and political processes that a city government or airport manager would have to wade through in order to raise funds for change and obtain permission to change.

Airports are probably symbolic of other urban infrastructure from highways to railways. The city and metro region itself is not necessarily in control of its infrastructure, and yet the infrastructure is essential to the region's economic well being.


MPS - Like Wendy I just want to say wow--thank you for that thoughtful and insightful comment.


Wendy--Thank you too. It's your original post that got this started. We're now close to a record for comments on this blog.


Wendy--Thank you too. It's your original post that got this started. We're now close to a record for comments on this blog.


Since I'm in another time zone I'd like to add a bit late what Wendy and Richard already expressed: MPS--what a great comment!!! Shows that airports are much more than what we as travellers actually see as we pass them...


I took a business trip to Milwaukee a couple of years ago and had a much better time than I expected. Now I think maybe one reason I enjoyed it is the surprisingly large /used/ bookstore in Mitchell Airport, which was a great place to spend my free hour before takeoff.

Charles Rostkowski

Because of security measures Salt Lake City Int'l is difficult if you are meeting anyone. One used to be able to go to the gate to meet people but now those waiting for arrivals are herded into a narrow area at the entance and it's the same area those who are leaving must gather to go through security. Quite a mess. I've flown into BWI a number of times and if you are coming from the west (and leave at a decent hour in the afternoon for example) you arrive after 10 or 11 and at that time everything, especially services, seems to be closed. Like someone rolled up the sidewalks at 10 o'clock. Odd for such a large metro area.


Wendy - you bring up a great point of how airports are governed, and how they can affect how they are developed. Dulles and National were basically in a financial and capital straightjacket until 1987 because they were directly controlled by the FAA and had to keep begging for funds year after year through the "normal" Congressional appropriations process. Not very efficient to develop an airport for the long term.

After 1987, the airports have been under the control of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which is independent and governed by a board appointed by the Virginia & Maryland Governors, DC Mayor, & the President.

The two biggest benefits from this arrangement are the ability for the Authority to tap the bond market for capital improvements (which is why the sudden flurry of constructions beginning in the 1990s) and to leave day-to-day management of the airport far removed from FAA and Congress. Of course, since they are still federally owned (though "leased" to MWAA), Congress does interfere in things of choice parkings spots for congressmen, cherry-picked slots from National to serve west coast destinations, and of course the re-naming of National to Reagan National (many congressman still act like National is their God-given right to be able to seamlessly fly home).

Now, of course there are problems and issues like any large bureacratic arrangement, even though MWAA is a huge improvement over the previous management. There is no one like Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago to spearhead and aggressively and "efficiently" push through massive capital improvements. In Chicago, the Chicago Department of Aviation is purely a city-controlled agency, so power and control is more centralized and things can get done faster when there's political will (or whatever suits the Mayor's fancy at the time). Things move a bit slower at MWAA than some may like.

The flip side of that is that MWAA is a relatively professional and uncorrupt organization. The "efficiency" you see at O'Hare and Midway often comes with significant corruption (this is also a Chicago political culture thing, not just a creature of being direct city-owned facilities). Neither the Governors of VA or MD, nor the DC Mayor, nor the President, nor any local officials (like Fairfax & Loudoun County executives, or say the Mayor of Herndon, VA) have such power in the development of Dulles & National. It's the appointed board that must come to consensus to drive development.

And as I said before - please be patient with Dulles. I agree it's horrible, but they are working hard there to make a better airport. The same authority has made National an absolute joy of a facility.


MPS - Your comments resonate. I'm gonna be more patient.

Wendy - Big, giant, MEGA THANK YOU! Your original post is the most commented on in this blog's recent memory.

Mark Vane

Hey, Quiet cool. BTW, I recently added a new cool News widget on my blog. Goto http://www.widgetmate.com or just google widgetmate. It gives a free customizable news widget that can added to your blog for latest news on the topics of your interest. Simple cut paste.


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