While American airports are struggling with security issues and spotty Wi-Fi, Asia has been engineering amazing “sky cities” that promise to change the face of business travel — and business itself. Although the trend began in Amsterdam, with construction of comfortable, cool Schiphol (AMS), the future is decidedly Far East.
Alex Kirby, managing director of Airport World magazine, is an observer of the changing culture of airports.
“The ‘airport city’ first emerged in Europe with Amsterdam Airport Schiphol,” said Kirby. “In more recent years, Asia’s airports have led the way in designing and developing airport cities with Incheon’s ‘Winged City,’ Hong Kong’s ‘Sky City’ and Beijing’s planned ‘Capital Airport City’ being the most high-profile examples.
“Does an airport city necessarily lead to a satisfied customer, or perhaps more aptly put, citizen? In many of the industry’s top passenger surveys, the Asian airports consistently score well for overall customer satisfaction. The names of Singapore, Changi, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Incheon have become synonymous with excellence and regularly appear among the names of the top award winners.”
Consider Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL). Designed to be an “airport in the forest” with the “forest in an airport,” KLIA’s sprawling 4,000-acre site features a man-made rain forest both inside and outside the Islamic-influenced architecture. Half space station, half temple, this gleaming glass testament to Malaysia’s modernization plans to serve 25 million passengers per year.
Renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa designed the structure, which opened in 1998 at Sepang, about 30 miles south of Kuala Lumpur. Sepang forms the southern tip of Malaysia’s answer to Silicon Valley, the new Multimedia Super Corridor. Like all of Asia’s new airports, KLIA is intended to be both a regional hub and a destination in and of itself.
Seoul has a similar idea. Incheon International Airport (ICN) envisions itself as both a “winged city” and a major air-transportation hub for Northeast Asia. Incheon’s 46-gate terminal is South Korea’s largest building, spreading over nearly 6 million square feet. Like KLIA, it’s located about 30 miles from the downtown area it serves. The site was literally created from nothing, built on a man-made land bridge between two islands in the Yellow Sea.
Completed Dec. 31, 2000, after four years of construction, Incheon is more than just a place for planes to land. In addition to an awe-inspiring main terminal, it contains extensive cargo facilities, a meteorological station, waste-water recycling and a “town square” with housing and services for airport employees.
Like most other Asian airports, Incheon was designed in close cooperation with a major carrier — in this case, Korean Air. “Incheon International Airport has been designed to be one of the world’s most technologically advanced facilities in terms of safety, security and customer satisfaction,” says Korean Air spokesman Steve Kim. “This is in large part because we have worked closely with the Incheon Airport Authority since the airport’s inception. Throughout the planning, design and construction, we’ve been an active partner.
“We think it’s a perfect example of a public-private partnership. We designed our passenger facilities to be spectacular and efficient. Meanwhile, we designed our cargo operation to sustain our position as the world’s largest cargo carrier.”
Airport revenue increasingly comes from retail and other services, and Incheon is no exception to the rule. The extensive duty-free offerings range from kimchee and ginseng to Bulgari and Burberry.
In Singapore, it seems, everyone loves to shop — and this is reflected at Changi Airport (SIN). Flyers can get their hands on anything “from a Rolex to a Rolodex, from Courvoisier to cologne,” enthuses Singaporean-turned-Chicagoan Desiree Koh. She’s not the only fan: Changi has also received industry accolades fo r its duty-free offerings.
Exemplifying the “transportation as destination” philosophy that many Asian airports strive for, Changi encourages flyers to make the most of long layovers and early arrival times. Changi even offers a helpful timetable geared toward getting the most out of your time at the airport. Passengers with less than an hour can grab a quick bite or drink at one of the many concessions and restaurants, or pick up a souvenir or book at a retail kiosk. Those with a bit more time might opt for checking email at free Internet terminal clusters, or getting back to nature with a walk through Terminal 1’s cactus, heliconia or bamboo gardens. (Terminal 2 offers orchids, a koi pond and a palm-and-fern garden.)
The latest blockbuster movies are shown continuously — and free — at Changi’s Movie Lounge. Those who prefer to lounge in the sun will welcome the chance to swim and tan at the Terminal 1 rooftop pool. Fitness fiends find a variety of workouts at the Shower, Fitness and Lifestyle Centre. And after sprinting up and down corridors to stock up on Montblancs, Changi flyers can relax with a massage at My Foot Reflexology.
Those with too much time on their hands may want to look into the tours and transit hotels that are popular offerings in many Asian airports. The air-side accommodations at Bangkok International Airport (BKK) is bare-bones, but the clean and comfortable rooms — rented in four-hour increments — are just the thing for a snooze and a shower after an eternity in the air. (Those wanting more luxury can clear customs, cross the skyway and pamper themselves at the exquisite Amari.) Changi, KLIA and others also offer short-term transit accommodations, and four-star properties are redefining the dreary digs that used to exemplify “airport hotels.” The Pan Pacific Hotel KLIA consistently wins awards, while Korean Air–owned Incheon Hyatt Regency offers Seoul satisfaction.
If sleep eludes jet-lagged journeyers, then it might be time for a tour. Shanghai’s state-of-the-art Pudong International Airport (PVG) gets bragging rights for whisking flyers to the “Paris of the East” in a flash, on a 267-mph magnetic levitation train. At KLIA, travelers might opt for a quick trip to Petronus Towers, the tallest buildings in the world. Those who’d rather go round and round than up may choose to stay in Sepang and fool around at the Formula One racetrack facility. Singapore offers guided tours (don’t skip the world-famous street food) while Incheon invites duffers to get in a few rounds at the 72-hole championship golf course.
But there’s more than leisure and layovers luring travelers to these awesome airports. Incheon is flanked by Songdo Media Valley, an 890-acre parcel that includes a technology park, a university research center and a town for airport employees and for businesses lured by easy access to a global transportation hub.
Hong Kong’s Sky City is another example of these transportation-based towns. An enormously ambitious project, Sky City is being brought online in phases after the construction of the new Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) at Chek Lap Kok. The core program for the airport alone cost more than $20 billion, resulting in a facility that consistently is voted “best airport in the world.” (It’s also the biggest, with 288 check-in counters, 200 immigration desks, 80 customs positions, and around 120 shops.)
But that was only the beginning. Ongoing developments will make it a city in its own right, with a Disney theme park; office, retail and business complexes; hotels; the Asia-World exhibition center; a marine terminal; and more.
The race for bigger-better-more continues faster than a 747. As much as they are economic engines, this new breed of Asian airport is also an emblem of national and regional pride. The new Beijing airport, slated for completion before the 2008 Olympics, will surpass even Hong Kong’s.
What does all this mean for passengers? At least in Asia, ugly plastic chairs and stale sandwiches may be a thing of the past, like Grandma’s steamer trunks and Swiss Army knives in carry-ons. See you in the sky. Or the rain forest.
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