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Gates of Heaven

Effective airport designs are often underappreciated, as it is easy to take them for granted when things go smoothly. You are comfortable, you find what you need, and you are not bored out of your skull. The best airports get the small things right in a big way.

changi aiport singapore interior

Best International: 
Changi Airport, Singapore

Splashier airports attract aerial photographers in droves, but Changi makes no such grand architectural statement. Instead, it woos the common traveler who may be stuck here for a few hours. It is not a hermetically sealed purgatory, thanks to a straightforward design that incorporates open-air spaces, including rooftop terraces and an out-
door swimming pool. Its atrium-like 
terminals are lush with indoor tropical 
gardens that exhibit botanical thought-
fulness. Admittedly, the man-made 
waterfall does approach Las Vegas standards of excess—–if you can build Paris in the desert, why not put a jungle in an airport? Ultimately, however, the vines, tasteful wood trim, and 
warm tones help offset the coldness commonly found in international 
hubs. A 24-hour cinema, spa, showers, children’s play areas, and free Internet service provide the means to kill 
time or freshen up before the next 
leg of your trip.

Best in the United States: 
San Francisco International Terminal

SFO makes a big impression on those approaching by car or aboard the airport’s nifty AirTrains. The terminal elevates expectations with its sweeping, winglike roof and custom lettering oozing cosmopolitan style. The feeling doesn’t dissipate indoors, either. The concourse is a light and airy space—–
if a bit oversized for current traffic levels—–that hums quietly and instills confidence and calm in the traveler. International food vendors afford 
nontravelers quality good-bye time; security checks operate smoothly; 
and there are no pretzel-like corridors to get lost in. Waylaid travelers can busy themselves with an aquarium, 
an aviation museum, thoughtful art and culture exhibits, spa treatments, quality restaurants, and wireless Inter
net. Convenient metro rail services connect the terminal to the city.

San Francisco International, exterior
San Francisco International, exterior
San Francisco International, interior
San Francisco International, interior

  • terminal three beijing aiport thumbnail

    101 Airports

    Modern air travel is about far more than merely making it from point A to point B. The journey is the destination, and we take a look at airport design and how terminals are evolving: which innovations take flight and which are left grounded.

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SFO turns out to be a surpirisingly civilized airport -- not only within the facility but also for land-side connections as well. Many times I found that within 45 minutes of my plan arriving at the gate, I was in downtown SF via BART: rested, luggage in hand, ahead of schedule.

I usually try to fly Virgin America. One of the reasons is that it uses the new International terminal.
That terminal is a pleasure. Clean, bright, and open. Nice restaurants and art. btw, I highly recommend getting a Clear card. It zips you through security. It's available at SFO, OAK, JFK, IAD, and others.

SFO as the best in the United States? You must be kidding.

The terminal experience is nice enough, but the "airtrain" is a brutalist experiment in cost-cutting, the rental car facility is gloomy, and the service / access roads surrounding the terminal are circuitous, confusing, and entirely unpleasant.

Compared to the experience of "being" in San Francisco and northern California, the airport is a real downer.

Even before I moved to Washington, D.C, I was madly in love with Reagan National Airport, which I would still suggest as the best in the US. It is efficient and architecturally elegant, inside and out. The conection to Metrorail service is fully integrated into the terminal experience.

SFO's International Terminal is aesthetically appealing, but as someone who transits through it every week, it has no shops or restaurants worth noting, and not a single place to get a decent cup of coffee. (The SFO authorities apparently banned Starbucks, Peets, and the rest some years ago from the premises.)

As for the security line "operating smoothly", that's got more to do with the time of day than its general efficiency. If you are unlucky enough to get in the way of those swarming the nightly Philippines Airline flight to Manila, the process is as far from smooth as can be.

I've been to both Changi and SFO and have to agree with the selections. Both airports are a pleasure to transit in and out of. SFO makes great use of limited space with a smart circular layout and its international terminal is simply dazzling and world class!