Hate flying? You’re not alone. But often, it’s not the crowded, overly air-conditioned airplanes themselves that are the problem: Just getting on and off the plane is the real nightmare. For this week’s List, FP looks at five airports around the world that make traveling hell.
Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport
Location: Dakar, Senegal
Firsthand account: “There is only squalor, an unnerving sense of confinement, and to some extent danger.” —Patrick Smith, Salon.com, May 25, 2007
Why it’s so bad: Because it’s standing room only. As a regional hub, an ordeal at Senghor is often unavoidable for travelers to West Africa. Once you’re in the terminal, don’t plan on relaxing: There are no seats, and guards will advise you to stop loitering if you hang around in one spot too long. Immigration lines can take up to three hours. And in any event, it’s best to keep moving since you can expect to be surrounded by vendors selling counterfeit goods and unofficial “porters” who will pressure you into hiring their services if you happen to come to a standstill. But the good news is that help may be on the way. The Senegalese government has begun construction on a new airport set to open in 2010, which will double the country’s air passenger capacity. No word yet on whether the new terminal will actually have chairs
Indira Gandhi International Airport
Location: New Delhi, India
Firsthand account: “Of all the regional capital airports this one takes the cake … a piece of crap ... bring the bug spray.” —Anonymous commenter, The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Sleeping in Airports, Dec 11, 2005
Why it’s so bad: Because it’s sheer chaos. The IT boomtowns of Hyderabad and Bangalore have built shiny new airports in recent years, but old standbys like New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport have failed to benefit from India’s economic expansion. Visitors report aggressive panhandlers, filthy bathrooms where attendants charge for toilet paper, and used syringes on the terminal floor. The main terminal building was even closed to visitors for a few months in 1999 after a flight from Nepal was hijacked. Things have hopefully gotten a little safer since an Australian tourist was murdered by a taxi driver leaving IGIA in 2004, prompting the Indian government to form a special tourist police force. But there’s still a danger of things going slightly awry: In 2005, an act of sabotage in an ongoing feud between cable television providers led to a pornographic film appearing on the airport’s television monitors. Let’s just hope it provided a much-needed respite from CNN International.
Mineralnye Vody Airport
Location: Mineralnye Vody, Russia
Firsthand account: “Mineralnye Vody airport is a lower circle of hell.” —The Economist, Dec. 19, 2006
Why it’s so bad: Because nobody told Mineralnye Vody that the Soviet Union is no more. Most of Russia’s airports have come a long way since the bad old days of communism, as new construction at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport attests. Competition from increasingly popular Domodedovo International Airport finally induced its cross-town rival to build two new terminals including cafes, electronic displays, and a new train service. But Mineralnye Vody, in a war-torn region of the Caucasus not far from the Chechen border, remains a stubborn throwback, right down to the large map of the Soviet Union that hangs in the departure hall. The airport seems to have earned a special place in the hearts of Russia’s foreign journalists, including the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who wrote in 2005, “Rather worryingly there’s a man selling Caucasian swords and daggers in the departure lounge and opposite him, over on the wall, is a list of local criminals wanted for murder.” Other amenities include snow and ice inside the terminal, feral cats wandering around, and Brezhnev-era copies of the Kama Sutra in the gift shop.
Baghdad International Airport
Location: Baghdad, Iraq
Firsthand account: “Before jumping out of your seat to complain to the pilot, consider the good news: You’ve just avoided being shot down by a missile.” —Alan T. Duffin, Air & Space magazine, Oct./Nov. 2006
Why it’s so bad: Because it’s in a war zone. The Baghdad International experience begins before you even touch the runway. That’s when you’re treated to the stomach-churning effects of a Vietnam-era landing technique known as the corkscrew, used to avoid projectiles like the shoulder-fired missile that took down a DHL Airbus cargo plane in November 2003. The corkscrew involves an abrupt roll during final approach that twists into a spiraling, straight-down descent until the plane flattens out and lands at what feels like the last possible moment before crash landing. The terminal at the former Saddam International Airport is itself apparently not that bad, having been refurbished after the war by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Homesick American troops can even chow down at a food court featuring Burger King and Pizza Hut. But that feeling of comfort ends abruptly after leaving the airport, as visitors have to brave the infamous “highway of death” between the airport and downtown Baghdad
Charles de Gaulle International Airport
Location: Paris, France
Firsthand account: “Charles de Gaulle is a disgrace … it’s like a third-world airport.” —Michel-Yves Labbé, president of French travel company Directours, Aug. 14, 2007
Why it’s so bad: Because a city this great with an airport this bad is just plain embarrassing. It may not have surface-to-air missiles or feral cats, but visitors to Paris should expect more than the grimy terminals, rude staff, confusing layout, and overpriced food that they’ll find at Europe’s second-busiest hub. Charles de Gaulle’s most recent attempt at modernization, the construction of futuristic terminal 2E—you might remember it from U2’s “Beautiful Day” video—led to tragedy when its roof collapsed in 2004, killing four people. In June, President Nicolas Sarkozy opened a new facility capable of handling up to six Airbus superjumbos at one time, or about 8.5 million passengers per year. Normally, such a move would be welcome, but CDG already boasts eight terminals and handled 57 million passengers in 2006. Making the airport bigger only makes the problem worse