Commentary: Why do airport rankings matter?

Commentary: Why do airport rankings matter?

Singapore’s Changi has been voted the world’s best six years running — yet one observer says he remembers so little of it.

LONDON: I have a problem with the Skytrax awards for the world’s top airports.

It is not that I disagree with the rankings, as voted for by international travellers.

And it is not that I lack experience of the airports. I have passed through six of this year’s top 10 in recent years and half of the top 20.

My difficulty is that I cannot remember them.


Singapore’s Changi, voted the world’s top airport in the 2018 awards — a position it has now held for six years running — fuses in my memory with Hong Kong International, ranked fourth.

I had to search my inbox for my e-ticket to remember whether I had, just last September, flown in and out of Tokyo’s Haneda (ranked third) or Narita, which came 11th. (It was Narita, but I can summon up no mental image of it.)

There are a few airports I can picture. Dubai (rated 23rd) because of its fountains. Vienna (number 17) because of the little shelf of books in the departure lounge.

I remember several of the train journeys to and from airports — the excellent link between Hong Kong airport and its central station, and the kind passenger who made sure that I got off at the right terminal at Kuala Lumpur.

KL’s airport languishes at 44th place in the Skytrax rankings, but I cannot recall anything wrong with it.

KLIA information screen
Tourists looking at the information screens at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

This is the point about most airports. They are inoffensive. Provided nothing bad happens to you while leaving, arriving or passing through, there is little reason to remember them.


The predominant airport style these days is steel and glass. They all look pretty much the same.

The airports that stand out do so for being awful: Berlin Tegel, for example, or those that let you down. I had an email from a reader recently frothing at London’s Heathrow because he had sat on a flight for seven hours in December waiting, in vain, for the plane to be de-iced.

I remember Heathrow, of course, ranked an impressive eighth by Skytrax, because I use it so often. It generally causes me no trouble. 

Its newest terminals, Five and Two, are fine examples of the functional, forgettable style.

Planes at Heathrow
Aircraft sit on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport in London. (File photo: AFP)


Does it matter? No one visits a city because of its airport. Even the decision about where to connect usually rests on price, convenience, and possibly the quality of the airline, rather than the airport you are going to spend a little time in.

But, given the advances in aviation during the past few decades, it is strange that so little attention has been devoted to making the terminals more memorable.

Why is there no airport that matches the great railway stations’ sense of occasion? Where is the aviation counterpart to New York’s Grand Central Station or London’s St Pancras, or even its magnificently remodelled neighbour, King’s Cross?

My colleague Edwin Heathcote, the FT’s architecture critic, wrote that Paul Virilio, the French cultural theorist, had predicted in the 1960s that the airport would replace the town square as the centre of urban exchange. 

It hasn’t happened, Heathcote wrote. All people wanted from airports was to get away from them as quickly as possible.

I give Melbourne airport high marks on that score. I remember nothing about it other than how superbly fast its automated arrivals machines are. If you are one of the qualifying nationalities, you can be outside in minutes without talking to a human.

Melbourne Airport
Aerial shot of Melbourne Airport. (Photo: Melbourne International Airport's Facebook page)


Does it have to be this way? There is one airport that I love arriving at. Madrid is 43rd in the Skytrax ranking. I don’t know why.

Its giant Terminal 4, with its roof of undulating waves of bamboo strips, is filled with light and warmth, while still providing shade. The brightly coloured struts holding up the ceiling make a wonderful contrast to the bamboo’s brown.

I usually get off flights relieved to stretch my legs. Only Madrid adds a spring to my step. I must make sure to vote in next year’s awards.

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