Before you’re a food or wine traveler, you’re just a traveler. The airport experiences we have on the way to our next great food or beverage-inspired holiday can make or break our entire holiday-making experience.
In my role, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to travel to many places, meet many people and enjoy many unique and memorable meals. After a while, you notice a few things, especially when you frequent the same destinations. I had a dreadful experience at the Vancouver Canada airport recently and it got me thinking. What happens if visitors become so aggravated before they arrive at their destination that the bad experiences irreparably tarnish their entire trip?
That’s how I felt flying into Vancouver, BC, Canada from Seattle. I’ll spare you the details, but once I landed in Vancouver, it took me 2 hours and 4 minutes to get from the plane, through Canadian immigration and customs, Air Canada check-in and Canadian domestic security for my next flight. I attribute the delays to poorly prepared and poorly informed staff for both the Vancouver Airport Authority and Air Canada. As I stood in one line for an hour, while 4 passport control booths were not being used, I could not help but think, what if there were 100 kiosks in this room processing these people? I had the same thought for the 3 very polite but barely competent Air Canada check-in people who were oblivious to a transfer line 100 people long which would take hours to process. What if they were replaced with a room of 20 kiosks? I don’t buy the excuse that 5 arrivals from big Asian cities all landed at the same time, taxing the airport’s resources. It’s not like those 5 flights were unexpected, is it?
The Vancouver airport is doing some reconfiguring, ostensibly to make things better. However, planners did not sufficiently consider the impact of construction work during the transition process. Passenger flow was dreadful. The experience was so horrendous, the Vancouver Canada (YVR) airport has earned a place on our “Do Not Use” list for international inbound to domestic connections into Canada.
What other airports are on the Do Not Use list? Recognition for the number one place is Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG). On two separate occasions, I flew from another European city to CDG and then had to transfer to a flight to the USA. Between meandering through what seemed like dozens of mismatched buildings, buses, trains and a mass of hundreds of people seething towards passport control not in any particular semblance of an organized line, and a few other choice nuggets that will remain unspoken, I have permanently blocked CDG from my list for all flights in and out of the EU. The situation was the same for both trips so this was not a one-time disaster. The EU-USA connection process is likely the root of the slowdown: getting to non-EU international gates, clearing security again, and processing passports takes time. International air travel has been around for decades. While the volume of international air travel continues to grow, you think someone would have figured out a solution to this problem a while ago.
Chicago O’Hare is also near the top of the Do Not Use list. The problem here is usually air traffic, but only one choice snow and ice storm in the wintertime mean you’ll be stuck sometimes for days — literally. Sorry Chicago. Great town. Love the people. Miserable airport.
Now which airports are doing things well?
My most recent great experience was flying into Dallas Texas (DFW) from Madrid. Someone really thought through the arrival experience. Large, multilingual signage. Lots of welcoming kiosks to process passports. Uniformed staff standing by in convenient locations to answer questions and direct people. Fast luggage retrieval. An overall incredibly fast process. From the plane I arrived on from Spain, through passport and immigration and to my next domestic USA gate, it took maybe 30 minutes. I arrived with a smile on my face and with enough time to enjoy a local burger and fries.
Singapore’s airport is similarly efficient, and one would expect that from a country that prides itself on its organizational skills. Getting into the country is fast and easy and you can be at your first hawker stand in just minutes after arrival.
My own hometown airport, Portland Oregon (PDX) does a great job featuring local retail businesses. It’s hard to find a chain at PDX (there are a couple, including Starbucks). Plus, the light rail train is located right next to the baggage claim and you can get downtown quickly and affordably. Nothing here to aggravate foodie travelers to Portland.
Other airports around the world have interesting food stores. Bilbao, Spain comes to mind, as does Paris CDG (the only redeeming feature of this airport) and Amsterdam. Barbados has lots of rum for sale as you would imagine. There is one store there that offers other Barbadian food souvenirs to bring home with you. That’s a great opportunity for travelers to and from such a small country, who maybe didn’t have the time to visit a grocery store during their stay. Rome, Italy has several food stores too but at prices as much as 3 times what you would pay outside the airport. EUR20 for a bag of pasta? I don’t think so. That’s one kind of “airport tax” that I refuse to pay.
The Bottom Line
The experiences we have at an airport, especially upon arrival, can taint our perception of a destination. A traveler who arrives in a good mood and looking forward to his or her holiday can have that good feeling shattered when a passport control line awaits them like the one in the above picture (this was Vancouver YVR airport on Thursday, January 14, 2016). It took a full 24 hours for me to calm down and recover from the stress. The bad taste was still in my mouth, and once burned, I won’t ever repeat that experience. This perspective will hopefully help you to plan better the experiences of travelers to your area or business, and help them to return home as raving fans, with their expectations exceeded.