I am still in recovery mode from being away from a month, which means I’m wide awake at 4am and will start nodding off at 7pm. As I sift through the 1,000 photos I took and review the myriad sites, shops, bars, cafes and restaurants I entered, I figure I look back at airports I passed through.
While train and bus stations are more convenient, cheaper and closer to city centers, I still find airports exciting and fascinating. Plus, you’re more likely to get your bags stolen or pick-pocketed at a train or bus station by a shady character than at an airport.
It’s a cross-section of the populous that enters in a sterile environment where a controlled and automated chaos rules. Between air traffic control and airport operations, you wonder how these transport hub don’t fall into disarray every hour or every day. I say this as I’ve never had to fly anywhere around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On this trip, I checked off seven new airports ranging from the highly-efficient to the something that should be torn-down immediately.
1. Dubai — This is a dream of an airport, and I was only there for three hours in the middle of the night. I haven’t been this impressed with an airport since I flew in and out of Hong Kong International. First off, when I landed at 1:30am, the temperature outside was 90F. Then when you get in the terminal, it feels like an oasis at 72F.
I had to go through security again, but only had to put my bag and jacket through the scanner. I kept my shoes and belt on and nothing went off. You read that airports of America? … I KEPT MY SHOES AND BELT ON AND DIDN’T SET OFF ALARMS.
Then to get to international departures, you are greeted with towering glass structures and an indoor waterfall with changing colored lights. Even at 2am, the airport is in full-swing with every type of cuisine and international fast food at your disposal, albeit at steep prices. I would have stayed in Dubai for a couple of days but it’s just way out of my price comfort zone. Just to give you an idea, I had a slice of pizza, a bottled water and a double shot of espresso. The cost was $11.88. I think the cost goes towards training employees because they spoke perfect English.
I was able to do a few laps and saw rows and rows of lounge chairs with people asleep in them. None of this sleep on top of bench chairs like a homeless person you see in other airports.
If the airport is this impressive, I’m sure Dubai itself is a marvel of efficiency.
2. London Heathrow — Besides Newark, this is the airport I’ve been to the most — probably 25-30 times since 2004. It’s an airport that makes sense and can handle the massive traffic day-in and day-out. I’m sure some Londoners are saying, “You must be joking.”
Getting in or out via the expensive Heathrow Express or the more-reasonable London Underground is a breeze. The international terminals, whether it be in Terminal 3 or 5 have loads of great restaurants and shops. Before I got Virgin Clubhouse access, I would hit up the Yo! Sushi or the Wagamama in Terminal 5.
In keeping up the every changing face of London, the airport seems to get more modern with every visit. The passport control is the only area that could use an upgrade. JFK has automated kiosks now, which Heathrow desperately needs since worker strikes are frequent.
3. Johanessburg — O.R. Tambo International Airport is a place worth getting early to. My flight back to London was at 9:30pm and since I was anxious to get going, I got there five hours early so I can relax and get some writing done. There are several restaurants to choose from before you pass security and there’s a balcony where you can watch the planes take off and land. You’ll also get a nice breeze.
In the international terminal, there’s a lot of places to shop so that you can spend your remaining currency. One of my guidelines of currency is to spend all of the non-British or Euro notes because you’ll loose value if you exchange them. Inside, there are plenty of African souvenirs and food stuffs to stock up on for last-minute gifts. I used my left over notes to buy tea, coffee and a necklace with the symbol of wisdom. Come on, it was only 40 rand.
4. Bilbao — It’s a small airport but has one of the most impressive designs due to Santiago Calatrava. More on the architect later, but the airport got an upgrade in 2000 to go along with his bridge for the city. La Paloma or The Dove created the idea of open space and flight and goes along with the high design of the Basque people.
5. Cape Town — Nothing particularly outstanding about the place, but it’s not a third-world hellhole. I flew in and out to Joburg. Flying in, I got the bag search after passport control and the guy pulled out some chocolate I had in my carry-on and asked what it was even though it clearly says on the package — CHOCOLATE.
Flying out, I tried the fast-food chain Wimpy. The lady was so nice when she got me my coffee. She says, “It’s made with love” which is their slogan. Awwwwwww.
6. JFK New York — It’s the only airport that I had to take my shoes off, even though I had TSA pre-check. The shoe thing is American stupidity at its best. I talked to other world travelers and all wondered why they are treated like criminals when they pass through airports in America.
As you saw in my first post on this trip, I got bumped from Newark and had to go to JFK. When I got there, the security line was pure chaos with people screaming at TSA agents about making them late and people cutting in line because they were late. I still don’t know if I was in the correct line. There was the regular line, the TSA pre-check line, the upper class line and the flight crew/handicap line. All were a minimum 30 minutes.
From among the three area airports, JFK is the least annoying. Not the best, the least annoying, but still a P.O.S. place to be get to and be at.
7. Sevilla — This was my favorite city on this trip. Unfortunately, the airport could use an upgrade. Since it rained all morning and afternoon the day I had to leave, I went there early. It’s one of those airports where the airlines don’t have dedicated check-in desks so you have hundreds of travelers looking up at the big board waiting to find out which numbered desk to go. Then when it does appear two hours before the flight, everybody rushes to those counters and you have to wait 30 minutes for the dufuses in front of you to check in their over-weight luggage.
Once you get past security, there’s only 3-4 shops and generic rest-stop style eateries. Sevilla is such an amazing food-destination, you would think that the airport could latch onto that aspect.
8. Casablanca — It’s Morocco’s biggest airport and a 40-45 minute drive outside the city center, which is ridiculous. I didn’t even bother looking up public transport, because if there was, I wouldn’t ride on it in fear of breathing in smoke and exhaust. When I got there, it felt like that scene in The Godfather, Part II during the Cuban Revolution where everybody is running in different direction.
The international terminal, where I had to go to get to Dubai, was incredibly loud and crowded. There was no place to escape the noise. Since it’s a Muslim country, quiet bars to grab a drink or even a decent meal were non-existent.
Finally, the below video I took is not an exaggeration. This went on for an hour continuously.
God bless the Emirates staff who have to deal with crowd control. I still don’t get why tourists want to rush onto a plane. If it’s for the overhead compartments, it’s not like if they run out of space they are going throw your shit onto the runway. Everybody chill.
9. Marrakesh — For the most popular city in Morocco, you’d would think its airport would be a welcoming site. Far from it. It feels like it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. All planes will disembark on the tarmac so you end up walking among dozen of other planes doing the same. Going through passport control took an hour with no assemblance of order or a line. In the meantime, there’s no air conditioning or circulation which caused a young boy to pass out.
Then the only way to get in or out is via taxi or hired car. That’s why it’s important to book a riad or hotel that will pick you up from the airport. When you do, you spend 10-15 minutes trying to find your name among the crowd of signs. A simple order of drivers standing in some sort of alphabetical area would help. A-D in this area, E-H in another and so on. Makes sense right?