Newspaper article International New York Times

Airports for More Than Taking off ; with Asia in the Lead, Competition Grows to Offer the Best Experience

Newspaper article International New York Times

Airports for More Than Taking off ; with Asia in the Lead, Competition Grows to Offer the Best Experience

Article excerpt

While American airports have improved significantly in the past 25 years, surveys of global travelers show that most top-rated airports are in Asia.

As major airports around the world scramble to brand themselves as luxury entities rather than mere transportation centers, some have adopted a star-ranking system, like hotels. It was inevitable.

Munich Airport, calling itself "Bavaria's gateway to the world," boasts that it has become "Europe's first five-star airport." The five-star distinction was awarded in mid-March to the German airport and four other international airports by the London air-travel research firm Skytrax, based on surveys completed by more than 13 million fliers in 2014.

Modern airports' positioning themselves in a firmament usually occupied by stylish hotels is an indication of how far the concept of airport-as-brand has come in the last 25 years. What used to be utilitarian -- a place to grab a magazine, a candy bar or beer and get on or off a plane -- has become far more elaborate, with amenities at many airports, including art galleries, interior gardens, theaters, mall-like concourses filled with shops and restaurants and, in some foreign airports, exotic experiences.

"Have you flown through the Kuala Lumpur airport?" said Sharon M. Schweitzer, a business traveler who lectures on intercultural communication. "When you get to that airport you have this experience of going into a rain-forest-like setting. The Singapore airport is another example. They have a butterfly garden, a sunflower garden, an area where children can paint; they have movie theaters."

Business travelers who fly mostly to airports in the United States might be amazed by this array of attractions -- Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, even has a 330-yard golf driving range. But across the board, in the United States and abroad, seasoned travelers generally concur that airports have improved significantly in the last quarter-century, as facilities have expanded and terminals have been modernized to generate local revenue.

And that presents a paradox, with airports becoming more attractive and comfortable for all, even as airline service and amenities have steadily deteriorated in recent years, except for those lucky passengers flying in the highest priced luxury seats in the front of the plane on international routes.

Local governmental entities typically manage airports as showcases to bolster regional economic growth. But airlines fly planes strictly in ways and along the routes dictated by the bottom line.

Since 2008, airports in the United States have committed $52 billion to capital improvement projects, many still underway. Globally, $385 billion worth of projects are in progress, led by China and the Middle East, according to estimates by CAPA Center for Aviation, a research organization.

Surveys of global travelers show that most top-rated airports are in Asia. Of the top five on the Skytrax 2015 list of the world's best 100 airports, Singapore Changi is No.1, followed by Seoul Incheon, Munich, Hong Kong International and Tokyo Haneda International. Airports in the United States do not appear in the top 25, though the Cincinnati, Denver and San Francisco airports are in the top 40.

The American airport industry says it needs more federal tax money for capital improvements to keep pace with those at foreign airports, especially to attract more international business travel, which accounts for 15 percent of all arriving air passengers in the United States. In a speech last year, Kevin M. Burke, the president of the trade group Airports Council International, North America, said airports in the United States were "at the breaking point" in struggling to finance the $75. …

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