Asia, Gary Fong, Hong Kong, See — June 13, 2012 at 8:15 am




(Photo: Gary Fong)

HONG KONG – Back in my corporate days, when I was constantly on the go traveling from one city to the next, the airport often became my temporary home, a place where I would eat, drink, shop, shit, work, sleep and even shower, while waiting for my flight onward.  It’s not something I particularly enjoyed (because, like it or not, it was part of the job) but it did provide me with the opportunity to get to know the airports of Asia – the good, the bad and, certainly, the annoying.

Out of the ten major international airports in Asia where my travels took me, there was only one that I came to love and that was Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), which to this day, I still think is the best airport in Asia if not one of the best in the world.  While a few of the other Asian airports became tolerable (back to those later), the rest did nothing more than annoy me, time and time again.

So what was it about HKIA that made it stand above and beyond all the others? Well, if I had to make a list of ten things that I think sets HKIA apart, this is what it would look like:


  1. Modern Facilities:  Yes, a young 10 years old and designed by bad-ass architect Sir Norman Foster.
  2. Easy Access To/From the City:  The easiest of any Asian airport.  The express train (AEX) to HK’s main business district takes a blink-of-an-eye, 24 minutes; Kowloon even less time.
  3. In-town, Advance Check-in Facilities:  Available at the airport express (AEX) train stations (in Hong Kong and Kowloon), beginning 24-hours in advance of your departure time so no schlepping bags through the terminal.
  4. Loads of Good Shopping and Eating Options:  250+ stores and 65+ food outlets, from luxe brands (Chanel to Leica) and specialty shops (including a Disney store that sells HK Disneyland-specific merchandise, and a branch of Japan’s lifestyle brand, MUJI), to traditional HK-style noodle and rice joints and even a Popeye’s Fried Chicken.
  5. Wi-Fi:  Fully wired and free throughout the airport.
  6. Excellent Business and First Class Lounges:  The Cathay Pacific lounges are some of the largest and slickest – minimalist-style décor, comfy chairs, spacious work areas, showers, noodle bar, booze, video game room, etc. – and open to qualifying One World members as well.
  7. Weekend Getaway Friendly:  Weekend getaways from HKAI are some of the easiest, e.g. the airport can be quickly accessed from the city center (no spending hours in traffic trying to get to the airport on a Friday afternoon); many Asian countries and their gorgeous beaches are no more than an hour or two away (lots of choices, and play time gets maxed).  Plus, Cathay always offers weekend air fare promotions/packages (planning is a cinch).
  8. Twenty-Four-Seven Hub:  HKIA is where you want to be if you need to get somewhere and get there quickly.  The airport operates around the clock and, as a center for air traffic in Asia, has one of the most extensive route networks in the region.
  9. Top-Notch Flagship Carrier: Cathay Pacific (HK’s flagship carrier) has got one of the best safety records in Asia, a Boeing-centric fleet of planes (the 777 is their workhorse, a huge plus in my book), flights to nearly every major destination and they’ve even upgraded all older planes (especially the 747 Jumbos) with the latest and greatest stuff.
  10. Speedy Immigration: Without a doubt, HKIA is one of the speediest, especially if you’re a HK resident – just place your HK ID card in the turnstile for scanning (like you would for the subway) and you’re through.

HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (Photo: Airport Authority Hong Kong)



Outside of HKIA, there are those, which I call the ‘next five’; and these are airports in Asia that I don’t mind (they are tolerable) and will often route through  (provided HKIA doesn’t make sense).  Each one of the five has its share of positives going for it but also a few downsides too. (Note: I’ve included Dubai because for some reason, it often get’s lumped in with the Asia airports, even though, geographically, it’s elsewhere; plus I’m partial to it).  So, in no particular order, here are my ‘next five’ airports in Asia:

Changi (Singapore) – While Changi has a lot going for it – one of the best flagship carriers (Singapore Airlines), easy access (it’s super tiny Singapore after all), and a great selection of food/shopping and entertainment options (there’s a multiplex) – I rarely seem to fly out of their larger terminal 2 which is where most of the good stuff is located. Also, getting to/from Singapore is a bit of an issue, given its outlier location in Asia.

Incheon (Seoul) – Love the building design, especially the traditional Korean wooden interiors in the immigration area.  The shops and restaurants are quite good as well, but with Seoul’s horrendous traffic, getting to Incheon can take an eternity.  Also, flagship carrier KAL’s once, very poor safety record will always be a concern no matter how many people tell me it’s now one of the best airlines (really?).

Narita (Japan) – I’m a big fan of what Narita has to offer – modern design, excellent shopping and food options – but it can’t make up for the fact that it’s so incredibly far from the center of Tokyo.  The process of getting there, checking-in and going through immigration can take, on average, about four hours (usually eating up an entire morning or afternoon).  Weekend getaways out of Narita are nearly impossible as well.

Dubai – This newbie of the group offers fab reclining lounge seats throughout and an excellent flagship carrier (Emirates) but always seems to be super packed with layover folk (it’s a major hub).  Also, the food and shopping options, while extensive, can be rather ordinary.

Haneda (Japan) – Super easy access on par with HKIA, great shopping/food options and doable out-of-country, weekend getaways (mainly to Seoul, Guam/Saipan and Shanghai) make Haneda one of the better airports in Asia. That said, it still has a ways to go before becoming an international hub, e.g. does not operate twenty-four-seven.



And finally, there are those airports that I found to be the most annoying; aka, the very worst in Asia.  I try to avoid these airports like the plague and here are some of the reasons why:

Pudong (Shanghai) and Capital (Beijing) – Love the modern design of both airports (Brit architects Richard Rogers did Shanghai, while Sir Norman Foster did Beijing) but the food and shopping options are pathetic and in major need of an overhaul. Plus, clearing immigration (to fly out of China) always seems to be an ordeal for me, given my Chinese ethnicity, and Capital in particular still has issues with getting locals to queue.  Kudos to Pudong for its maglev train, however.

Taoyuan (Taipei) – The smallest (and possibly the oldest) airport in the group offers a decent selection of food and shopping options.  The negative: their flagship carrier, China Airlines, provided me with my most frightening plane experience ever, and this is also where I had my SARS quarantine scare.  So maybe it’s just bad memories.

Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok) – Last-minute weekend getaways via Suvarnabhumi are almost impossible to do last minute (you’re competing with tourists, so most flights are booked), food and shopping is mediocre at best (would it kill them to let in a hawker stand or two?), and prices increase at least five fold once you’ve gone past immigration, which is just plain annoying.  Their flagship carrier, Thai Airways, is in need of a makeover as well – service isn’t what it once was and their fleet is not aging well at all.

So, there you have it – my choice for the best, the next five and the very worst of the airports in Asia.  Not the end-all to be-all, but just a few tips that perhaps can make the often-painful experience of Asia business travel a bit more bearable.

What’s the little thing that makes HKIA the best airport in Asia?  It just makes getting in and out of HK so darned easy.

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PASSENGER TERMINAL AT HKIA (Photo: Airport Authority Hong Kong)

Author:  Gary Fong

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