Judging a City by its Airport

First impressions are important. We’ve all heard that one thousands of times. But we also know that sometimes you can’t judge a book by it’s cover — to add another cliche. Airports are often the first point of contact with a city — are they an accurate read on what a city has to offer?

Journalist Tyler Brule addressed this recently in the International Herald Tribune. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he suggests creating an Airport Quality of Life Index (AQOLI) as a counter to the various human resources consulting firms “best places to live” and “best quality of life” indexes.

He looked at London and New York: Heathrow versus JFK. Well, if you had to decide on whether to stay in New York or London on the basis of those two airports, you’d be on the next flight out. My more limited observations of these airports mirror his jet setting experience : they’re generally crowded, understaffed, unclean, inefficient, and exhausting. New York and London, especially London, are great places to visit — albeit expensive — with lots of interesting neighbourhoods to wander, tourist attractions, and reasonable transit systems for getting around. They’re also financial hubs and economic energy centres for the world. Their airports don’t do the cities justice in my opinion (and Brule scores them low on an AQOLI index).

So, the airport-as-indicator-of-the-city theory doesn’t hold for New York and London. But these are older cities, and the airports are older too. With so many things, it’s harder to retrofit and renovate to new modern standards than to build from scratch.

What about other airports? I thought about a variety of airports that I’ve been through in the past few years on several continents and you know, a lot of them did accurately reflect the city and the country.

Take China. Modernizing fast with a new (or renewed) entrepreneurial spirit. The airports in Shanghai and Xian reflected this. They were clean, efficient, and modern in appearance and function and very spacious. We also went to Urumqi, on the western frontier near the old Soviet Republics, and that airport was smaller but seemed underutilized, quietly efficient, and very reminiscent of frontier regions of North America that receive a lot of government money and with nothing else to spend it on, create a nicer airport with especially funky conveyor belts (Whitehorse, anyone?). The rest of Urumqi seemed similar — a little overbuilt and over modern for what and where it was.

By contrast, the Islamabad airport is absolutely stereotypically a reflection of what it’s like to travel around the city and Pakistan generally. New attempts at security create bizarre dysfunctional and inefficient lines and chaos without providing much sense of safety. Every passenger is accompanied by a dozen family members to see them off, create a mob scene and traffic congestion with honking horns, even at 3 AM. There’s lots of human energy and excitement both with hangers on and the staff at the airport, but it seems to lack some leadership to channel it into productivity.

It was a contrast to fly from there to Dubai. There, the airport is a perfect reflection of the city: everything to grandesse, every modern airport convenience imaginable, great efficient staff from all over the world likely capable of helping you in almost any language. Incredible shopping while you wait. Extravagance and comfort. And the city is the same way: extravagant (several ice hockey arenas and an indoor ski hill !), international, modern with great shopping for all budgets, but especially the rich.

Dubai and China airports seem to reflect the image the country wants to portray: modern, global, and economically successful. They are designed as a deliberate first impression.

Islamabad’s just is. And London and New York’s airports pre-date a concern with first impression: they’re from the 60s most likely and the modernist “purely functional” era of industrial design.

I don’t know what first impression newcomers to Vancouver receive: but when I get off a plane to the dimmer lighting, earth tones, and the sound of waterfalls a sudden relaxation comes over me. Maybe I’m glad to be home, or maybe that reflects a laid back west coast attitude. Please tell me if you recently visited Vancouver for the first time, via the airport.


  1. George says:

    “It’s no coincidence that no culture ever invented the term ‘pretty as an airport’”

    Douglas Adams (Author of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

  2. Kim Siever says:

    I hope people don’t judge Lethbridge by its tiny, ill-serviced airport.

  3. Silus Grok says:

    FWIW, at the Creativity Exchange article that links here, commenters praise Vancouver’s airport.

    As for the general thought, I’d extend it further: cities HAVE to address all of their gateways to really make a difference. Major freeway access points, train bus and ferry terminals, city boundries, each have something to say about how the city sees itself. And since we all use these gateways, the gateway-and-core approach to expectations-setting is a great way to inculcate an ethos into locals and travellers alike.

    ( Hey, Kim… funny meeting you here! )

  4. Wendy Waters says:

    silus grok – what you say makes sense. Perhaps it’s like the reason why you wear a nice suit to a job interview — it is both to impress the person interviewing you and to make you feel confident about yourself. Gateways are the outer clothing and appearance of a city.

    Everytime a resident leaves and returns, it’s nice to be greated by a pleasant experience.

  5. Markus says:

    Well… I think that today is the time of capitalism, where money rules… if you are looking things from that angle then the private beautiful shops on airports absolutely don’t represent the whole city..

  6. Waikit says:

    hmmmm…partly agree. beijing got a wonderful airport now with some great service, but it doesnt reflect the city’s culture at all

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