What Makes the World’s Best Airports Tick?
Jewel Changi Airport. (Photo: South China Morning Post)
By Tai Wei Lim

What Makes the World’s Best Airports Tick?

Apr. 23, 2019  |     |  0 comments


International business would not be possible without the facilitation of globalization. Globalization in turn is only made possible when there are transportation facilities to facilitate people’s travels. Airports are one such facility, absolutely needed by passengers who want to get from point A to B over long distances in the fastest possible manner. That is why airports are also symbolic and actual representation of connectivity. Innovation and improvements (both incremental and leapfrog) would not be possible without the element of global competition.


The chief of the United Nations’ (UN) civil aviation arm told Asian countries that Asia needs to augment and upgrade their airport facilities to manage large numbers of routes and air flights and that countries must cooperate together and not be overly protective of “sovereignty concerns and worked together to share data and information”. In other words, politically, countries must think of regionalism and promoting globalization rather than looking inwards. Moreover, the chief reiterated that it has been taken as a developmental given that the scaling-up of flights and routes translate to economic development and local city or community wealth.


For example, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport have become Southeast Asian air hubs with intentions to challenge Singapore’s Changi International Airport to be the region’s number one air hub. The foundations for regional competition in this area is based on infrastructural developments and continuous upgrades and innovation so that airport branding and the country’s political economic power from connectivity can be maintained. In management terms, there is a need to create the buzz for continual development and competitiveness.


Political economic competition in the airport industry is high stake. Therefore, there are strong incentives for competition. The civil aviation market in the Asia-Pacific makes up 33 percent of international air traffic. Political economic competition also characterizes airport competition. Changi International Airport, one of the benchmarks for airport management, attained 60 million passengers in 2017, a record for the airport and it was taken as a positive feedback of good public policies of connectivity, transportation and airport management for Singapore. Political competition through public policies by various countries to claim the top East Asian airport is ongoing. In fact, it is a competition for regional dominance in connectivity and with that political economic power.


Like all other issues related to political economic competition, political elements drive the rankings of airport. One such grassroots political element includes the ability of consumers to shape airport policies of countries around the world. It is a good example of democratization of business decisions. No longer are airport authorities, airport management firms and profit-making airline companies the only stakeholders with political power to shape the future of airport management. In fact, consumers have amassed massive political power and their grassroot decisions, consumer pressure and activism have shaped the competitiveness and policies of airport management.



Narita has become well-known to exercise buffs for its Terminal Three running track! It also has impeccable cleanliness.



Edward Plaisted, Chief Executive Officer of Skytrax argued, “Everybody is now is quick to criticize, whether it’s on social media, whether it’s because you’ve been stuck at immigration or customs…Airports are now much more savvy about customer complaints and realizing the damage that it can do to their reputation.” In other words, airport management have to work overtime to please passengers and cater to their needs. Airports are no longer just ports of call for business travellers and tourists. And here is the great significance of airport itself.


Airports are now important nodes in connectivity and globalization. Airports facilitate the shrinking of the world as they enable supersonic jets and airliners to cross long distances at speed a little under the speed of sound. They also enable refuelling to take place for planes to embark on longer-distance journeys.


However, consumers demand more than that. They want leisure and entertainment activities, best restaurants, branded goods consumption, ergonomic facilities and pristine levels of hygiene and cleanliness. Customer demands and the invisible hand of capitalism have shaped airport management systems. For example, Japan’s Narita International Airport has placed a premium on instituting a clean airport environment. Operationally, Narita’s success lies in the fact that it is voted the fifth cleanest airport in the world. Overall, as an airport facility, it came in at Number 9 in the Skytrax ranking in 2019.


Various criteria have been used to judge and evaluate the rankings or airports. They include: tech infrastructure, hospitality of service, entertainment facilities and fast customs and immigration clearance. For the leading airport ranking in the world, Skytrax World Airport Awards, rankings are also dependent on the airport’s ability to “improve, innovate and impress”. Data is obtained from individuals who are surveyed for their satisfaction. Within Japan, Narita’s closest rival is Haneda which is number two in global ranking in the 2019 rankings. The spectacular rise of Narita in the rankings (a newcomer compared to Singapore’s Changi, South Korea’s Incheon, Hong Kong International Airport and Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport) is worth studying.


All these top ranking airports have distinctive features that make them special. Thus, competition in the international business of airport management is heating up. Singapore’s Changi International Airport is known for its comprehensive shopping and resort settings (with butterfly parks, internal gardens, generous displays of tropical plants), something further enhanced by Project Jewel which comes complete with tropical rainforests, Pokemon theatre and waterfall, in addition to brand shopping. Incheon provides free cultural workshops for passengers who are keen to pick up traditional Korean handicrafts as they wait for their flights. Passengers can choose to make keychains or paper dolls. They are able to bring back those self-made cultural artefacts back home. Narita has become well-known to exercise buffs for its Terminal Three running track! It also has impeccable cleanliness.


The future of airport management is likely to move even further towards technological and digital trends. Already, airports and custom as well as immigration officials are using information technologies, biometric technologies embedded in passports, etc. Very soon, airports will be utilizing A.I., facial recognition software, and machines to sort out the different identities of passengers. All these are part of the trends towards smart city development. In addition, infrastructure improvements will continue to be largely driven by profit-making to meet customers’ needs. Plaisted said, “They want you in the airport buying food, beverages, doing your shopping. Not standing in a 20-minute security queue.”


2019 Skytrax World Airport Awards

1. Singapore Changi Airport -- Singapore

2. Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) -- Tokyo, Japan

3. Incheon International Airport -- Seoul, South Korea

4. Hamad International Airport -- Doha, Qatar

5. Hong Kong International Airport -- Hong Kong

6. Central Japan International Airport -- Bay of Ise, Japan

7. Munich Airport -- Munich, Germany

8. London Heathrow Airport -- London, UK

9. Narita International Airport -- Tokyo, Japan

10. Zurich Airport -- Zurich, Switzerland



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *