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Airport Reflections

Airports speak volumes about the nature of competition in the era of globality

I don't think you'd find it surprising that, as someone who focuses on globalization, I spend countless hours in airports each year. And as I traveled for several weeks in November, meeting with CEOs in seven countries (as reported in my previous column, "Beyond Survival: Winning in a Global Recession," Dec. 12), it occurred to me that airports are reflections of the countries that build them. Here is what I learned as I traveled to Europe, South America, and Asia before returning home to Chicago.

Connecting in London: I arrived at the new mega-glass Terminal 5 in London's Heathrow Airport, which is a modern architectural gem. It is filled with premium, High Street stores and seems more like a shopping mall—like the Mall of America in Minneapolis or the Galleria in Houston—than a place to catch planes.

Line Forms Here

Alas, also part of T5's "ambience" is the British tradition of queuing. At T5 they have all but perfected the art of making you stand in long, frustrating lines. After you spend 20 minutes in line to get your boarding pass scanned, you move to another long line to have your passport checked, which brings you to another serpentine of ropes—forcing you to walk back and forth for several more minutes—just to get to the escalator and up to a long line for security screening.

T5 takes the art of waiting to a new level, so much so that even though I had nearly an hour to make a connecting flight and was able to use the airport's "fast track" system avoiding the scandalously long lines that awaited less-frequent fliers, I missed my connection and spent the next three hours in an airport lounge.

Heathrow views itself as a gateway to the world. But you better not be in a hurry to pass through it. T5 reflects the halcyon days of British globalization—the 1800s—when it took at least 80 days to get around the world.

Teutonic Efficiency

Next stop, Germany: Frankfurt is only 407 miles from London, but its airport is a world apart. Rather than a monument to shopping and the creative use of architectural glass, it is German efficiency writ large.

Heathrow has five terminals connected by trains. To go from T4 to T5, you have to make a connection in T3. Frankfurt Airport (even its name is no-frills) has only two terminals, which are connected by a short train. While there are lines, as there are in every large airport, they are shorter than Heathrow's—and they move faster. There are fewer shops, which means shorter walks to the gates. Frankfurt Airport's function is clear: to get you to your gate and on to your destination.

Nonstop to Brazil

São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport, one of three in the city and Brazil's busiest has 260 check-in counters, operates around the clock, and struggles to keep up with demand. It has few passenger lounges and relatively little shopping. It's difficult to connect to the Internet. (Hint: Try the telecommunications office on the upper level, but you have to pay in cash.) Plans call for two additional terminals, a third runway, and an express train into the city.

Guarulhos reflects the current state of Brazil, A country in transition. It's building the infrastructure but struggling to keep up with demand. Brazil keeps running faster, but it hasn't yet caught up.

China Calling

From one BRIC country to another: Because you can't get directly from Brazil to China, this part of my trip seems to take forever. Capital International Airport in Beijing, one of the 10 busiest in the world, was updated and expanded for China's coming-out party during the Olympic Games last summer. Capital Airport is a thoroughly modern glass marvel with three terminals—the newest of which opened just months before the 2008 Summer Olympics—and all of the modern amenities, including a large shopping mall, reflecting China's emerging role as a consumer-oriented economic superpower.

Did I say China? The truth is, there is little here to distinguish Capital International from any other big modern airport. It's a very nice facility: bright, spacious, and always spotless. But the retail outlets, featuring almost exclusively Western brands, are pretty much the same as what you would find at a large mall. The only Chinese characteristic, other than the remaining Olympic souvenir shops, are the Chinese characters on the signs, along with English.

Capital Airport reflects 21st century China's focus on modernization and economic progress, which will serve it well in the era of globality, but China has yet to develop a style of its own.

New Delhi Smoke

On to India: First-time visitors arriving at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, which opened Asia's longest runway in September 2008, are usually surprised when the flight attendant announces that you shouldn't be concerned about the smell that enters the aircraft as the plane is slowing down on the runway. It's caused by what Delhi weather forecasters euphemistically call "smoke." You smell it before they open the door of the airplane.

When you enter the terminal, you sense the crush of India's population almost immediately. It seems like all 1.1 billion people are trying to get through Customs with you. Heathrow has its queues; Gandhi has countless human bodies pressing ahead relentlessly. Be prepared to wait an hour or two before you enter the country.

The airport is an eclectic mix of Third World decay, where just about everything is falling apart and little works, and recently renovated areas that are sterile but functioning. A new terminal is being built, but like everything in India, it will take what seems like forever to complete the job.

When you leave the building, you encounter another sea of people. It's a wonder that you can locate the driver who's holding a sign with your name on it. The airport and the trip to the hotel reflect India's key barrier to greater success: India has not yet developed the infrastructure needed to unleash its potential.

Rendezvous in Paris: Charles de Gaulle International Airport, as you would suspect, is beautiful. Its Terminal 2 is an architectural marvel, with high ceilings and lots of light. Stunning though it may be, it's hard to get around. Try finding your way from a gate in section 2A to a gate in section 2F. It's all in the same terminal but it feels like you are running a maze, especially when Paris is not your final destination.

Charles de Gaulle reflects French style—form trumps function. It looks great, but like French high fashion it's not very functional. Ah, the predictable French: C'est si bon.

Sweet Home Chicago

Chicago is known as the Second City, and O'Hare International Airport is America's second-busiest. What I like about O'Hare is that it's predictable. You can get from here to there in a reasonable amount of time. Almost all the gates are in the same security zone. If you're in good shape and in a hurry, you can run between the two farthest gates in the security zone gate C32 to gate K19 in 7 to 10 minutes. (I once made it in less than five minutes to avoid a potential four-hour wait for a later flight.)

Because of the volume of traffic and Chicago's notoriously bad weather—wind, snow, thunderstorms, depending on the time of year—you can reliably expect delays. There's always a newsstand nearby, however, if you want to pick up a newspaper and another place nearby to get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. No pretentious shopping malls. No grand architectural statements. O'Hare is an airport. You go there to go someplace else. It delivers what it promises without distraction.

O'Hare reflects Chicago—the city that works. In spite of all its problems, O'Hare gets the job done with a high frequency of flights and two major carriers competing for my travel.

Function Over Form

There are several lessons here for business. One important lesson is that form in many cases is far less important than function. If something looks good but doesn't work properly, it'll hold you back.

A second lesson is that everything we make—even airports—should be user-friendly. It shouldn't take an Eagle Scout to navigate from one gate or terminal to another.

A third lesson is that every business, and business unit, needs to remember what it is, what it does, and why it exists—especially in an era of mounting competition. Many airport authorities seem to have forgotten this. A seasoned traveler will invariably choose the airport that knows it's an airport, not the Mall of America, and makes it easy to get from point A to point B. Who wants to shop if an airport wastes your time in long unnecessary lines and makes it difficult to navigate the terminals and make connections?

All businesses must be clear about their mission. The era of globality will provide most companies' customers with an increasing array of choices. To stand out and win this competition, companies need to know who they are and what they can do best, and then do it well.

Airports, in the era of globality, also send a strong signal to executives about the pluses and minuses of possible relocation and outsourcing decisions. A major hub airport that isn't "all business" should tell you something.

The greatest lesson of all, perhaps, is that it's always nice to get home. After clearing Customs and getting into a cab at O'Hare, it's just 30 minutes to my house. When I arrive, the best part of my trip is awaiting me: a welcome-home kiss from my wife. It reminds me what's really important in life and makes me wonder why I ever leave home.

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