top of page

What Makes An Airport a Good Airport?

By Rob Russell

I am sure you have heard this question asked, thousands of times and we all have our opinions and views, but I suppose it all depends on who you are, what you are doing at the airport and whether it meets your needs, or not! To some, an airport might be a great airport and easy to use, but there will always be many people who will curse that airport and hate it, so in reality, there is no easy and simple answer.

One has to approach the question from several views. The first, and probably the most important, is from the owner/operator's point of view. Then there is the user and this can be someone who flies into the airport, someone who works on the airfield and then the passenger, who makes use of the aircraft that fly in and out of it. And don’t forget the neighbours!

Then throw all the opinions together and come up with an answer! Easy or is it?

The owner/operator

Many of the world’s biggest airports, and oldest, had their origins in airfields, which were used during World War 2. They were laid out, then on the outskirts of cities and far enough away from the local population, that they were not a problem to the locals and noise and other environmental factors were not an issue. These airports have evolved over time - grown, been added onto and expanded in a somewhat haphazard way. Not often being close to mass transport facilities, required these to be laid down and incorporated into modern airports, they are a bit of a nightmare when it comes to user-friendly airports and in many cases, the owners have huge problems making them work at an efficient level. Pilots don’t like flying there, as invariably, the airspace around them is crowded and busy and requires much concentration and effort to fly in/out and around them, never mind the chaos on the ground. Add in all the noise abatement restrictions and pilots don’t enjoy them.

However, when an owner invests in the ground, with a view to building an airfield, the bottom line is to make money. But making money can be a disaster if you don’t do your research and come up with a project that the ultimate end user is happy with. So a lot of work goes into this. Invariably use will be made of expert consultants, from around the world. Of course, many of these consultants are very good and some are very bad! So which one do you choose? Not easy, so a lot of homework is required there.

For an airport to succeed, the owners need to consider the following:

  • Offer the best and unique services to all parties. Each airport is unique and different from those around it. The need to work out what services are important is vital and ensure you offer facilities your potential clients will want to use. For example, it's not good to build an airport which will cater for cargo over passengers, when there is no rail link close by or no major road network. Don’t build your airport in areas of heavy fog, otherwise the average airline and general aviation pilot will not want to operate there, for fear of diverting and not delivering passengers to their destinations.

  • Continuously strive to improve the airport's operational efficiency. The importance of staying ahead of new developments and updating your airport is vital. Old airports suffer, as there is often not space to do this, whilst new airfields have the space if they are built away from major urban areas. But these will need efficient mass ground transport systems, to get your passengers there. So the need to take into consideration future expansions and developments it is vital.

  • Ongoing engagements and continuously talking to your clients and airport users. Engage with your customers and clients and see what they want and how best you are able to incorporate these into your airport and future plans. And don’t forget the neighbours – the last thing you want is hundreds of complaints, daily, about the noise aircraft make and traffic on the roads, around your airport. The residents around airports invariably give management the most problems, especially when it comes to movements and noise.

  • Staying ahead of your opposition airports. Kinda common sense. Survival 101!

The users

This can be divided into four main areas:

  • The Airlines - What do they want?

Efficient, well-designed layouts, user friendly, a good working relationship with the airport owners and fellow airlines and ground handlers. Airlines want airports that encourage fast turnarounds for their aircraft, and terminals that are passenger-friendly and do not get congested, in peak times. Airlines want maximum use of modern technologies to assist their passengers – online check-in facilities, fast efficient bag drop facilities and digital security and immigration facilities. Making it easier and faster for their passengers to use.

Good co-ordination between all these factors is needed, to ensure their passengers have a good experience and will want to come back to that airport and travel with them again. Older airports, ie Heathrow, have become hemmed in by the surrounding urban areas and the owners are constantly looking for ways to increase movement and efficiency, to be able to meet the airline's expectations. These include, for example, knocking down old terminals and building new ones. It's not a joke when they say many older airports are permanent building sites!

And then the most important of all – the fees they are charged by the airport owners. You don’t want to pay huge fees and get poor service, inefficient airports and bad terminals. So it’s a fine balance of paying for services and getting the most for your money. Airport owners want profits, so they will charge as much as they can. But getting the balance is vital so the owner is happy, they can expand and update their airport, the airline is happy and they don’t have to charge the passenger exorbitant prices to fly.

  • What are pilots looking for

Ease of airspace into the airport, well laid out arrival routes and runways. On the ground, uncongested taxi routes, for ease of taxiing around the airport - low risk of collision threats, whilst taxiing and, then, on take off, simple, effective and efficient departure routes.

Many of the older airports, for example, Heathrow, have grown from wartime fields and the airspace around them is heavily congested and as a result, it's pretty complicated to fly into them. They require accurate flying and being on top of your game, at all times. Many newer airports have been laid out far from town centres, Dubai World Centre, or Beijing’s Daxing Airport, for example, which means the airspace, is not as complicated and much easier to fly into and out of.

On the ground, the older airports have complicated taxiways and these are often squeezed between buildings and aprons, which requires extreme caution and during peak times it gets pretty hectic trying to find your way around. On the other hand, newer-generation airports are spacious, well-laid out and easy to get around.

Most important of all is a good ATC service – often overlooked by airport management, who prefer to leave this to other service providers.

    • Ground handlers

Well laid out terminals – large uncongested check-in areas and arrival areas. On the airside, well-designed gate areas, with easy access to the aircraft, for all users and efficient access routes, to the terminals. The need is for gates close to the terminal to speed up pax movements - all allowing for fast turnarounds and efficient movement of aircraft. As far as possible they would like the airlines to be grouped together – it's just logistically easier and makes for easier and efficient service. The last thing handlers want is aircraft scattered all over the airport – it stretches their personnel and equipment and is a recipe for delays! Ease of access to engineering areas should aircraft need to be taken there, or brought back, as well as access to catering buildings – some airlines load lots of catering and such ancillary services and they don’t want to be far from there.

    • The passengers – that’s mostly you and me!

Ultimately the passengers – the main reason the airport exists – what do they want? We all know how they can complain, so they want

  • Ease of access to the airport. Be it by road or rail. Many of the older airports are in the town centres, whilst newer airports are often far from town centres. So you never going to satisfy all of them! Many older airports have poor road access, which is often a nightmare at peak times – Cape Town is one - their access routes sometimes go through high crime areas and are not pleasant to be on, especially at night time. Attacks on staff and passengers are a no-no and this can negatively affect an airport’s ratings.

  • Clear and easy signage – so you don’t get lost

  • Parking at the airport. Parking garages should be close to the terminals, if not, then some sort of transport to and from the garages to the terminals should be made available. The last thing you want is a grumpy passenger walking for ages to find his terminal, or their car, after a 15-hour flight!

  • Well laid out check-in areas – keep the passenger moving forward and avoid mingling of checking in passengers with the general public and meeters and greeters.

  • Uncongested passport and immigration facilities - on departure and arrival. We all know how frustrating these points are. Modern trends allow for digital interpretation of passports and these should be installed. They speed up passenger movement and reduce congestion, except when the IT fails – the UK had this a few weeks ago and it was taking passengers 6 hours to get through immigration, on arrival.

  • Shops and other such retail outlets. These should stock and sell things a passenger can take on aircraft. Not shops with fancy clothes and selling shoes, or hardware shops! Airport owners see their shops as a money-making opportunity and seem to forget an airport is not the local shopping mall.

  • Rapid and easy access to the gate, from which they will be departing

  • Wifi and such technology

  • Ease of getting through the airport on arrival getting their bags and getting out of the airport as fast as possible – no clutter and no shops here. They not going to be buying stuff here. Maybe a bank or two, but that’s it.

Finally the last group of people.

The neighbours

And the hardest to deal with, and satisfy. Many of them simply do not understand the airport was there before them and try to make life a misery for all those involved in the airport.

Older airports are invariably noisy, dirty and now in the centre of urban areas, through no fault of their own, and they often attract negative publicity. Look at some of the airports around the greater New York area. So it is important for these airport’s managements, to properly manage their airports, by strictly enforcing noise restrictions, adapting their routes into and out of the airport, to try and stay away from urban and populated areas, and putting operating restrictions in place, ie limiting the hours of operation. But limiting these hours can affect the bottom line, so it’s a fine balance.

Satellite-based navigation systems have gone a long way to assisting in the better use of airspace and arrival and departure routes. Many older airports, in downtown areas, are making use of satellite-based arrivals going over rivers and avoiding residential areas, to reduce the noise aircraft make. Newark airport has an arrival route flown down the nearby river and San Francisco encourages airlines to use the standard departures and arrivals, which are flown over water and away from built-up areas.

Newer generation aircraft, the Airbus A350 and A320, Boeing 787 and 737 Max, for example, have very quiet engines and airport operators are encouraging airlines to fly these aircraft by charging reduced landing fees, compared to the older generation jets. These go a long way to becoming friendly neighbours and having a good working relationship with the people around the airport.

So, there is no easy answer, but making an airport a great airport and a good experience is a combination of all these factors and requires continuous teamwork by all parties.



bottom of page