Why Asia Has the World's Best Airports

Practically every traveler has a nightmare story about airports. There are the long queues for security screenings, surly customs and immigration officers, and flight cancellations or lengthy delays. But in Asia, a number of airports have come a long way in making the preflight hours more pleasant for passengers.

Where is the world's best airport? Seoul, according to the annual Airport Service Quality Survey released this month by Geneva-based Airports Council International. Asia practically swept the survey's top honors, winning four—Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Nagoya, Japan—of the first five spots in the ranking. Nova Scotia's Halifax was the only non-Asian airport in the top five.

Those flight hubs impressed the more than 200,000 passengers at 126 airports from around the world who took part in the quarterly airport surveys. They rated the passenger experience from a list of more than 30 service-quality factors, including courtesy, cleanliness, and overall ambience. (For more on the top airports, see this slide show.)

"Commitment to Hospitality"

Few U.S. airports rank high in the survey. That's because airports in the U.S. are widely viewed as public facilities, while those in Asia are seen as service-oriented businesses, analysts say. The difference in perceptions explains why Asian countries will splurge on airports, while U.S. operators won't. "Asians have a different philosophy for airports," says Kim Hyo Joon, an independent aviation consultant and ex-chief operating officer of Incheon International Airport Corp., the state-owned company that runs Seoul's airport. "Our focus is to make airports convenient, attractive, and pleasant, even at fairly high costs."

Many of the highest-ranking airports weren't just conceived as multibillion-dollar projects. Asia's top airports also regularly spend big sums on upgrading everything from showers to shops for travelers. But can they retain their lead? Probably, says Nancy Gautier, Airports Council communication director. "There seems to be both a business and cultural commitment to hospitality that underpins their customer service," she says.

Take Seoul's Incheon International Airport, which snagged first place in the ranking for the fourth straight year. Two years before opening the $5 billion airport in 2001, airport administrators set up a task force that analyzed what some of the world's best airports were doing right. The task force looked at Singapore, Hong Kong, Denver, and Atlanta. Then planners set about figuring out how the new Seoul airport could offer services that would outdo those hubs. The airport, which last June completed the $3 billion addition of a passenger terminal and runway, has earmarked $120 million for further upgrades in parking and other amenities this year.

Savvy Initiatives Despite a Downturn

Other areas of the Korean government are heavily involved, too. Incheon International Airport Corp. has linked a customer satisfaction campaign to a national agenda that aims to turn the country into a key aviation gateway in northeast Asia. "The government is committed to lending support to make Incheon International Airport a magnet for our logistics industry and tourism," says Kim Se Ho, a former Transportation Vice-Minister in Korea.

But lately the global economic downturn has hurt Korea's ambitions. Passenger traffic has suffered double-digit declines this year. One reason is that many Koreans have cut back on travel since the country's currency, the won, plunged in value against other major currencies. In the past, when the won was strong against the Japanese yen, many Koreans would fly to Japan for a weekend of golf, shopping, or hot springs. But the won's 34% drop against the U.S. dollar and 43% fall against the yen since the beginning of 2008 has made it much costlier for Koreans to travel overseas.

To attract airlines and travelers, Incheon airport has cut down on waiting times. Administrators reassigned terminals for planes making a brief stop and reprogrammed computerized baggage handling systems. The result: Last year the airport reduced to 45 minutes from 55 minutes the minimum connection time for passengers who are traveling through Seoul to other destinations. The airport authority also spent around $7 million on a new 240-seat lounge, which opened last June for departing passengers and offers free showers, Internet connections, and movies on giant-screen TVs.

Such initiatives appear to be paying off. In January and February, the number of travelers passing through Seoul to destinations outside Korea jumped nearly 39%, to 900,000, from the first two months of last year, even as overall passenger traffic fell 13.4% to 4.74 million. "We know many other airports are waging similar campaigns to boost their traffic," says Yoon Han Young, Seoul airport's aviation marketing director. "Passengers will only benefit from the competition."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.