Skytrax Best Airports 2019: No surprises

Generally the Skytrax list of top ten airports does not surprise. It’s very much the same again this year, with the airlines staying in the same rank or switching positions one up or down. Frankfurt Airport is the ony one to drop out of the list, replaced by Tokyo Narita.

Courtesy Changi Airport

Singapore Changi wins hands down, a record seven years. With continuing construction of new facilities and upgrading works, it is one hard to beat. Changi pampers the travellers, and respondents give it top honours for leisure amenities. But it is ranked behind Seoul Incheon and the Japanese airports of Tokyo Narita, Tokyo Haneda and Centrair Nagoya for airport staff service. It is also second to Seoul Incheon for international transit.

Worthy of note is again the absence of North American airports but the rising popularity of Japanese airports. No surprise that Tokyo Haneda and Centrair Nagoya are the two cleanest, with Tokyo Narita and Kansai also in the list. Doha Hamad International is the only Middle East airport in the top ten, and you may ask where is Dubai International as the world’s busiest airport. The list is generally dominated by Asian airports, but European airports have managed to maintain some presence in the top ranks: Munich (7th), London Heathrow (8th) and Zurich (10th).

The modern airport is today more than a mere transportation centre facilitating movement from one place to another, but a metropolis in its own right as airports compete to keep the numbers coming. Shopping for example is an important feature, for which London Heathrow wins the day. So too is dining, for which Hong Kong is a consistent winner.

The form impresses, but it is empty if not supported by substance. The basics are still important, such as baggage delivery which according to the survey is best provided by Kansai.

A new category introduced this year – best website and digital services – sees the mention of an American winner: entity: Houston Airports System. By he way, Houston George Bush is ranked fifth for dining. So there is hope, America!

Is Istanbul Airport the new Middle East hub?

Courtesy Getty Images

Turkey’s new Istanbul Airport is set to be the world’s largest airport, capable of handling up to 90 million passengers by 2021 with room for expansion to increase capacity to 200 million by 2028.

By comparison, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the United States – the current title holder – is capable of handling 104 million. Neigbouring Dubai International Airport has a capacity for 84 million, behind Beijing Capital International Airport’s 94 million but ahead of Haneda Airport’s 80 million, Heathrow Airport’s 76 million and Frankfurt Airport’s 61 million. (2016 figures provided by Airports Council International).

The airport was declared open on Oct 29 by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, not all flights operating at the existing Ataturk Airport have been transferred to the new airport – not until the end of the year according to plans.

Mr Erdogan referred to the new airport as the “most important transit location on the north-south, east-west axes, connecting 60 countries and US$20 trillion economies”.

So, is Istanbul Airport the new Middle East hub, overtaking Dubai International?

No reason why not if you consider how geographically Istanbul is positioned not much differently from its Gulf neighbours. In fact, Istanbul, situated in a country that straddles both Asia and Europe, makes a viable alternative considering touristic interest in the region and how it is actually located on the doorstep of the wider Europe.

Already the authorities are encouraged by Istanbul’s growth of transit traffic albeit at the Ataturk Airport, and analysts are inclined to think that the new airport is likely to grow at the expense of other Middle eastern airports including Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi. That is, if Istanbul can ramp up the game to match what these other airports are offering in terms of cost, facilities and service. And, of course, if the volatile political climate in the region can be contained.

The competition will be fierce.

It cannot be denied the Gulf airports have been growing in tandem with that of their home airlines – Dubai/Emirates Airlines, Abu Dhabi/Etihad Airways, and Doha/Qatar Airways. Turkey’s national carrier, Turkish Airlines, is no small player. It operates scheduled services to 304 destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, making it the largest carrier in the world by number of passenger destinations, serving more destinations non-stop from a single airport than any other carrier in the world.

However, Turkish is ranked 18th in the 2018 Skytrax survey of the world’s top airlines, behind Emirates (4th) and Etihad (15th). But that’s still ahead of some major European carriers including KLM (19th), Air France (25th) and British Airways (31st).

Right now, Ataturk Airport is the 11th busiest airport in the world in terms of total passenger traffic and the 10th busiest in the world in terms of international passenger traffic. As of 2017, it is Europe’s 5th busiest airport after London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The new airport, larger and capable of providing better facilities, should not fare any worse off.

Same airports in Skytrax’s best ten 2018

The 2018 Skytrax list of world’s top 10 airports is a gentle rejuggling of last year’s list which may be divided into three parts. The top three airports remain the same as the next three, and so too the last three with Chubu Central in the same 7th position.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Singapore Changi tops the list for six consecutive years, a remarkable feat that according to Skytrax “is the first time in the history of the awards that an airport has won this prestige.” Its closest rival is Seoul’s Incheon International in second place, followed by Tokyo Haneda, which has been making impressive stride in recent years. In fact, Haneda was 2nd last year, and Incheon third.

The other airports in the top ten list are Hong Kong International (4th ), Hamad International (5th), Munich (6th), London Heathrow (8th), Zurich (9th) and Frankfurt (10th).

Changi scored with the best amenities, enhanced by the addition of a new terminal (T4) and the upgrading of Terminal 1. With continual upgrading works and the opening of the aptly named Jewel Changi Airport facility next year – a complex of gardens and more leisure activities – it looks like it may yet again achieve the top honour.

However, Changi is second to Hong Kong for transit and dining, and second to London Heathrow for shopping. It ranks behind Taiwan Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd) and Tokyo Haneda (3rd) for customer service, and much lower in 7th position for baggage delivery. Incheon and Japanese airports score high in these areas. Not surprisingly, Japanese airports score top marks for cleanliness.

Don’t bet on the list changing much next year. Airports are massive investments that take time to materialise, and many of the existing ones are quite content to be functional and hopefully efficient than to be wowing! Yet note that Beijing Captial, which was one of the ten best from 2012 to 2015 has dropped to 34th position.

As appeared to be the order of the day, there is a noticeable absence of US airports with the first mention in Denver airport, ranked 29th. Canadian airports fared a little better, with Vancouver International which was among the ten best for three consecutive years 2012-2014 now ranked 14th but still the best in North America, and Toronto Pearson ranked 41st.

Asian airports dominate Skytrax best rankings

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Not surprising that Singapore Changi clinched Skytrax’s 2017 Best Airport award for the fifth year running, commended for having the best leisure activities. As a hub airport, it is how best travellers are relieved of the stress of travel that will garner an airport favourable ratings. Changi is a favourite transit airport with its array of amenities, restaurants and shops.

What else can we infer from the survey said to be based on 13.82 million responses from 105 different nationalities, conducted from July 2016 to Feb 2017?

The top spots are held by familiar names of the last five to six years – Incheon International (3rd), Munich (4th), Hong Kong International (5th), Munich (4th), Zurich (8th) and London Heathrow (9th).

Incheon was ranked the best airport in 2012 before Changi took over in 2013, and until this year, it was a close second.

Special mention should be made of London Heathrow, which was the world’s busiest airport for international traffic until Dubai took the honours from it for two years now – Dubai did not make it to the list as being among the best.

It would appear that performance consistency is key, yet stagnation can lead to one losing the competitive edge. Changi has always prided itself as being innovative, constantly upgrading and expanding its facilities.

Making strides are Tokyo Haneda (2nd) and Doha’s Hamad International (6th). Tokyo Haneda was ranked 9th in 2013, 5th in 2015, 4th last year and 2nd this year. Hamad entered the top ten list at the bottom last year and made it up to 6th this year.

Besides Tokyo Haneda, there is a second Japanese airport in the list, namely Centrair Nagoya (7th). Tokyo Narita and Kansai Osaka were also ranked in previous years. It does say a lot about Japanese airport management.

It is no surprise that four Japanese airports are ranked among the top ten cleanest airports – Tokyo Haneda (1st), Centrair Nagoya (3rd), Tokyo Narita (5th) and Kansai Osaka (9th). Except for Zurich (8th) and Hamad (10th), this list is dominated by Asian airports, the others being Incheon (2nd), Taiwan’s Taoyuan (4th), Changi (6th) and Hong Kong (7th).

Similarly, the best airport staff service list is made up of nine Asian airports with the exeption of Vienna (10th): Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd), Tokyo Haneda (3rd), Changi (4th), Centrair Nagoya (5th), Kansai Osaka (6th), Kuala Lupur International (7th), Tokyo Narita (8th) and Hong Kong (9th). Clearly service is an Asian strength.

One other Asian airport deserves some mention as the most improved airport – Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport. Will it make it to the list as one of the world’s best?

By bow you have noticed that no airport outside Asia, the Middle East and Europe are listed in this year’s Skytrax top ten/ The only outsider was Vancouver International which was ranked 9th in 2012, 8th in 2013 and 9th in 2014. Yet again, this does not come as a surprise.

Singapore Changi is world’s best airport

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Singapore Changi is named world’s best airport in the 2015 Skytrax survey, three years running and the sixth time that it won. No surprise. The airport has been the darling of travellers with its wide range of facilities that include a swimming pool, a variety of restaurants and tropical gardens. For one thing, it is continuously expanding and upgrading to stay ahead of the pack.

Changi handles more than 50 million passengers annually out of three terminals. Although it is not operating near full capacity (66 million passengers), it is spending S$1.7 billion (US$1.4 billion) on a fourth terminal to be completed by 2018 and there are already plans for a fifth terminal, costing an estimated S$3 billion, which will be bigger than the current three terminals combined. (See Changi Airport raises the bar to be the world’s best airport, Dec 18, 2014)

So, said Skytrax chief executive Edward Plaisted: “Rather than dwell on earlier success, the airport continues to innovate and concentrate on making the customer experience in the airport environment the most enjoyable.”

Asian airports continue to dominate the top honours in the Skytrax list, with Changi, Incheon International (2nd) and Hong Kong International (4th) being consistent favourites. Worthy of note is the improved presence of European airports in the top ten rankings: Munich Airport (3rd), Zurich Airport (6th), London Heathrow (8th), and Amsterdam Schiphol (9th).

Interestingly, Middle-East airports which are homes to Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways are placed further down in the list. Both Abu Dhabi International (29th) and Dubai International did worse than they did a year ago. However, Hamad International – home to Qatar Airways – made impressive strides up the ladder from the 75th to 22nd position. It calls to question the complementary relationship between an airline and its home airport. But one has to be wary about comapring apples with apples. Skytrax places Dubai as one of the world’s ten best airprots for 50 million passengers and more.

Qatar Airways nets a prized catch, expanding westwards

IT may seem somewhat crazy, but it is definitely not surprising in today’s aviation landscape of fast changing and crisscrossed relationships, some of them making most unlikely bedfellows. The ends justify the means.

Courtesy British Airways

Courtesy British Airways

Qatar Airways has acquired a 10% stake in International Airlines Group (IAG), better known as the owner of British Airways (BA) and Iberia. IAG also owns Spanish budget carrier Vueling. The act of acquisition itself by the cash-rich Middle East carrier does not surprise. Qatar lags behind rival Etihad Airways in this respect; Etihad already owns Alitalia (49%), Air Serbia (49%), Air Serbia (49%), Air Seychelles (40%), Etihad Regional (formerly Darwin Airlines) (33.3%), Air Berlin (29.21%), Jet Airways (24%), Virgin Australia (10%) and Aer Lingus (2.987%).

But coming lately, Qatar has bagged a prized acquisition, considering IAG’s bases at two major European hubs, in particular London Heathrow, and the strong transatlantic networks of BA and Iberia. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker said: “IAG represents an excellent opportunity to further develop our westwards strategy.” It should be a strong partnership. Together, their networks cover Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia.

In 2013 Qatar became a member of OneWorld, becoming the only one of the big three Gulf carriers to join a global airline alliance. More than an apparent Qatari interest in things British, this was a step forward to forge a closer relationship with BA. Qatar said it may increase its stake in IAG for which it paid £1.15 billion (US$1.73 billion). However, EU regulations have placed a cap on non-EU ownership at 49%.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Quite unlike Etihad, which has entered the arena as a white knight in many cases, Qatar is buying into one of Europe’s more profitable outfits. Clearly it is a strategic move. While European carriers are becoming wary of Gulf carriers making inroads in the EU market, the competition is at the same time a race among the big three Middle East carriers themselves- Qatar, Etihad and Emirates Airlines. This has become all the more prominent in recent years as they out-compete each other within their region and seek aggressively to push out their geographical boundaries, leveraging on the success of home bases such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha as hubs for international traffic connecting Asia Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The rivalry for supremacy is clear in a jibe made by Mr Al Baker on the race to top the chart for extreme luxury in the air, something that carriers outside the Gulf are less disposed to think about at the same level. He said: “We always raise the bar for our dear friends around the area to try to copy us.” (The big deal about extreme luxury, Jan 19, 2015)

Courtesy PA

Courtesy PA


The timing could not have been better for Qatar as IAG looks likely to succeed in a new takeover bid of Irish carrier Aer Lingus after two failed attempts previously. This would gain IAG more take-off and landing slots at Heathrow. What is interesting is the composition of Aer Lingus partners, which include Ryanair (29.8%) and Etihad. Any opposition to the deal is likely to come from the Irish government which owns 25% of Aer Lingus, but it may be a price well worth paying for the crucial air links between cities in Ireland and Heathrow as the world’s largest hub (until topped by Dubai recently) and beyond. Ryanair has itself attempted unsuccessfully to take over Aer Lingus and objected vehemently to IAG’s proposal in the past for reasons that are not difficult to see. IAG’s chief executive officer Willie Walsh and Ryanair’s chief Michael O’Leary are not exactly the best of friends. But if money talks, the latest offer of €1.3billion (US$1.47 billion) by IAG may well carry the day.

Airline relationships in today’s industry are more complex, if not blatantly promiscuous. While global alliances offer the broad framework for cooperation, it is not uncommon to find rival airlines connected in some way through a third party. The numerous cross-border codeshare arrangements are testimony to the multi-faceted connections. Less than half the world’s airlines belong to any of the three global alliances: Star (27 members), SkyTeam (20 members), and OneWorld (15 members). Although many major carriers are already members, there are notable exclusions such Virgin Atlantic (although CEO Richard Branson who made an about turn in 2012 announcing Virgin might join one of the alliances soon) and the other two of the big three Gulf carriers Emirates and Etihad. While Aer Lingus itself is unaffiliated, and so are part owners Ryanair and Etihad, IAG’s influence cannot be precluded although it has said Aer Lingus would continue to operate independently.

It is best to adopt a detached view of the business. Alliance membership may but not necessarily suggest a like-mindedness that brings friends to the same table. There is no reason why friends and foes alike may not put their money in a common proposition that will help further their respective positions. OneWorld membership may have eased Qatar’s way into the IAG stable, making it easier for Mr Walsh to be “delighted to have Qatar Airways as a long term supportive shareholder.” Not sure if he would be any less delighted if it had been Emirates or Etihad. But for Qatar, as part owner of IAG which is set to take over Aer Lingus, it is stealing a march on rival Etihad.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.