LIKE expensive watches that never break, the world’s best airports can be boring. You land, breeze through passport control and check into a hotel within minutes. The experience is pleasant, but not memorable. The worst airports have more character. To adapt Tolstoy, lovely airports are all alike, but every wretched airport is wretched in its own way.
Consider Juba. The airport in South Sudan’s capital is a sweltering tent next to a festering puddle. Planes are often late, so passengers must sweat for hours. The departure lounge has no toilets, no food and no queuing system. Lucky is the traveller who finds a chair that is only half-broken. Since dirty water and tropical diseases are common, so are upset stomachs. Tough luck. Travellers should have thought twice before eating salad.
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Security is haphazard. Big important people’s flunkies carry their bags, which are ostentatiously passed round, not through, the scanner. Since the machine seldom works, little people are in effect upgraded to big important status by not having their bags scanned for guns and explosives, either.
South Sudan is at war, so many UN planes take off from Juba carrying aid workers and emergency supplies. Aggressive officials in sunglasses take pleasure in obstructing them. When your correspondent was booked on a UN flight, he was assured by the government that his papers were in order. Yet at the airport he was told to get a fourth permit, as well as the three pricey ones he had already obtained. This required a trip across town and a tedious haggle. Predictably, he missed his plane.
Juba has three terminals, but only one is in use. After South Sudan became independent in 2011, the government planned to build an airy structure of glass, steel and concrete. Work started in 2012, but stopped when the bills were not paid. In 2016 the government decided to build a more modest terminal. But it, too, stands half-completed and empty, next to the tented camp that people actually have to use. Travellers are advised to bring a good, long book.
All are bored
Working out which is the world’s worst airport is not easy. The best rough-and-ready attempt is the Guide to Sleeping in Airports, a website that publishes an annual survey based on voluntary submissions from irate travellers. It ranks airports by qualities such as discomfort, poor service, bad food, cumbersome immigration procedures and how hard it is to grab forty winks while waiting for a connection.
Overall, Juba was rated worst in 2017. Since photographing any airport in South Sudan will get you arrested, the description of its “horrific smells and filth” is accompanied by an artist’s impression which makes the departure lounge look far nicer than it is.
The ranking is inevitably skewed by sampling bias. It misses truly awful places that hardly anyone visits, and over-emphasises less egregious ones that handle more people. Juba won its “worst in the world” ranking not only on demerit but also because so many foreign charity workers pass through and complain about it. Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, comes second not because it is really the second-worst in the world but because it is swamped with haj pilgrims every year and cannot cope.
Because gripes spring from disappointment, expectations matter. Travellers in the rougher parts of the world applaud wildly when a plane lands without crashing; more pampered types are enraged if the Wi-Fi is slow. It was the mismatch between expectation and reality that doubtless propelled three Greek hubs (Crete, Santorini and Rhodes) into the Sleeping in Airports worst ten. Hordes of northern Europeans flew to Greece for a cheap holiday in 2017, where they encountered strikes, delays and other indignities to which they were unaccustomed. Many reached for their smartphones and complained.
To illuminate some of the gaps in existing rankings of bad airports, The Economist conducted an unscientific, anecdotal poll of its globe-trotting correspondents. It attracted more, and more passionate, responses than nearly any other internal survey we have done. Here are some of our reflections from the departure gates of hell.
Several airports in war zones are worse than Juba. Our Africa editor cites Bangui, in the Central African Republic: “The fence around it has been stolen, so when big jets come in to land the pilots keep their hands on the throttle so they can pull up if they see people trying to run across the runway (which lies between a refugee camp and the city, and so has lots of crossing traffic). On the plus side it has sandbagged bunkers on its roof and was designated the final fallback position by French forces during the civil war, so if you are in it you are about as safe as you can be.”
Although each awful airport is unique, four themes recur: danger, bullying by officials, theft and delay. Sometimes, all these reinforce each other. For example, it takes ages to get through Lubumbashi airport (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) because truculent security officials slow things down in the hope that passengers will give them “un cadeau” to hurry up. If you hand over $1, they let you board without your bags getting checked at all. Such transactions are often referred to as “bribes”, but are really a form of extortion with menaces. They make air travel in places like Congo slower, riskier, costlier and much more unpleasant.
Air travellers make tempting targets for thieves. They are rich enough to afford an air ticket, which in many places makes them rich indeed. They carry luggage, some of it valuable. They are often far from home and unfamiliar with local rules. Finally, airports are full of choke points through which travellers must pass if they are to board their planes, creating opportunities for crooked officials to fleece them.
The ones in Manila are especially creative. Some have been known to plant bullets in luggage so they can “find” them and demand bribes not to have the owners arrested. This scam is known in Tagalog as “laglag bala” (“drop bullet”).
In Johannesburg the pilfering is covert but rampant. Our correspondent grumbles: “Despite packing absolutely nothing of value in my checked bags they are regularly rifled through and were twice slashed open (they weren’t even locked). Once I found someone else’s sunglasses case in my bag; mislaid, perhaps, by luggage handlers in a looting frenzy.”
Some travellers are harassed by officials who seem to fear that, if they do not look busy, they will be replaced by machines, as many have been at modern airports. The magnificently uniformed functionary in Delhi who demands to see your papers—despite having just watched another functionary inspect them—falls into this category. Other officials harass travellers for the sheer fun of wielding power. Our former Cairo bureau chief writes, of Saudi immigration procedures: “The queues are subtly divided by nationality and caste. If you happen to be a Baloch labourer, your lot is to sit on the floor for hours, getting barked at and swatted by swagger-stick-wielding Saudi policemen. Anyone who falls asleep risks a thrashing.”
Rules change at borders, and some airport officials enforce them mindlessly. One correspondent recalls that in Santiago, Chile: “I once got detained for two hours for failing to declare an unopened, sealed bag of almonds. I then had to write a declaration expressing my contrition for bringing the nuts. When I failed to do so without cracking up I was threatened with arrest. The lady next to me was being interrogated for smuggling in a lone banana.”
The worst airports reflect the vices of the governments that regulate them. Pyongyang has a totalitarian vibe. A correspondent writes: “The plane played rousing music when we flew over the border into North Korea, and we were handed copies of the national newspaper and asked not to fold it, since it had a photo of Kim Jong Il on the front page.” The only consolation is that the airport has a chocolate-fondue fountain.
Venezuela’s half-Marxist, half-gangster, wholly incompetent government, which has prompted much of the middle class to emigrate, does not make the journey easy or pleasant. Our Bello columnist grumbles of Caracas: “Your hand baggage will be searched in detail twice (by the National Guard, who are drug smugglers who claim to be fighting drugs).” Our organised-crime correspondent also has miserable memories: “The departures board showed our flight as delayed up to the moment when it showed it as closed. I waited endless hours for the next flight in a fast-food restaurant, the only place with seats, and watched a mange-ridden dog licking out the polystyrene containers strewn on the floor.”
Poor countries have an excuse for poor airports. Rich countries do not, which is perhaps why travellers are particularly irked to find grottiness in, say, Brussels, the heart of the European Union and a noted centre of gastronomy. Our Charlemagne columnist writes of Charleroi, its second airport: “It is grim, grimy and cramped, and has atrocious food. The planes leave and land at ungodly hours. And the only real way into town is a coach that runs every 30 minutes and is frequently overbooked: more than once I’ve queued in the rain only to see it drive off as I reach the front.” Many correspondents moaned about Berlin, where a new, unfinished terminal is six years late. Another European airport that elicits howls is Luton, which claims, fancifully, to be close to London. An intern writes: “Going on holiday and returning to Luton is like having a wonderful dream and waking up to find yourself in a puddle under a railway bridge.”
Airports all around the world have to cope with growing crowds. The number of passengers has roughly doubled since 2005, to an estimated 4bn in 2017. Some have done so brilliantly, harnessing technology and smart design to usher more people swiftly through. Singapore, Seoul and Munich score highly on this measure.
American airports, by and large, do not. This is not simply because security has grown tighter since 2001—that is true everywhere. It is because security and immigration screening are far more hasslesome than they need to be. Border officials are rude, and there are too few of them. Surveys suggest that every year millions of tourists shun the world’s greatest country because getting in is so horrible. A “trusted traveller” programme speeds things up a bit, but only for a handful of passengers.
Idiotic bureaucracy abounds. Travellers from Europe to Latin America who change planes in the United States must pass through immigration control, thus running the risk of missing their connection. What is the point of asking people who do not wish to enter the United States why they wish to enter the United States? Transit passengers in Singapore or Nairobi do not have their time wasted like this.
Our overall judgment (readers are invited to visit our travel blog, Gulliver, to dispute it) is that, adjusted for national income per head, several busy American airports would be contenders for worst in the world. Washington Dulles has the worst-designed ground transport: travellers must enter and leave a mobile pod by the same door, so everyone crowds round in the hope of getting off first, thus blocking it. JFK is the main gateway to the world’s capital of consumerism, yet scarcely any retail therapy is available to treat travellers’ boredom. But Miami is surely worst of all. The queues at passport control take nearly as long to navigate as Leif Erikson took to cross the Atlantic in a longboat.