Like expensive watches that never break, the world's best airports can be boring. You land, breeze through passport control and check into a hotel within minutes. The worst airports have more character. To adapt Tolstoy, lovely airports are all alike, but every wretched airport is wretched in its own way.
Consider Juba. The airport in South Sudan's capital is a sweltering tent next to a festering puddle. Planes are often late, so passengers must sweat for hours. The departure lounge has no toilets, no food and no queuing system. Security is haphazard.
South Sudan is at war, so many U.N. planes take off from Juba carrying aid workers and emergency supplies. Aggressive officials take pleasure in obstructing them. Juba has three terminals, but only one is in use. Travelers are advised to bring a good, long book.
Working out which is the world's worst airport is not easy. The best attempt is the Guide to Sleeping in Airports, a website that publishes an annual survey based on voluntary submissions from irate travelers. It ranks airports by qualities such as discomfort, poor service, bad food, cumbersome immigration procedures and how hard it is to grab 40 winks while waiting for a connection.
Overall, Juba was rated worst in 2017. Since photographing any airport in South Sudan will get you arrested, the description of its "horrific smells and filth" is accompanied by an artist's impression which makes the departure lounge look far nicer than it is.
The ranking is inevitably skewed by sampling bias. It misses truly awful places that hardly anyone visits, and overemphasizes less egregious ones that handle more people.
To illuminate some of the gaps in existing rankings, the Economist conducted an unscientific, anecdotal poll of its globe-trotting correspondents. It attracted more, and more passionate, responses than nearly any other internal survey we have done. Here are some of our reflections from the departure gates of hell:
Several airports in war zones are worse than Juba. Our Africa editor cites Bangui, in the Central African Republic: "The fence around it has been stolen, so when big jets come in to land the pilots keep their hands on the throttle so they can pull up if they see people trying to run across the runway [which lies between a refugee camp and the city, and so has lots of crossing traffic]. On the plus side it has sandbagged bunkers on its roof and was designated the final fallback position by French forces during the civil war, so if you are in it you are about as safe as you can be."
Air travelers make tempting targets for thieves. They are rich enough to afford an air ticket, which in many places makes them rich indeed. They carry luggage, some of it valuable. They are often far from home and unfamiliar with local rules. Finally, airports are full of choke points creating opportunities for crooked officials to fleece travelers.
The ones in Manila are especially creative. Some have been known to plant bullets in luggage so they can "find" them and demand bribes not to have the owners arrested.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, the pilfering is covert but rampant. Our correspondent grumbles: "Despite packing absolutely nothing of value in my checked bags they are regularly rifled through and were twice slashed open (they weren't even locked)."
Other officials harass travelers for the sheer fun of wielding power. Our former Cairo bureau chief writes, of Saudi immigration procedures: "The queues are subtly divided by nationality and caste. If you happen to be a Baloch laborer, your lot is to sit on the floor for hours. … Anyone who falls asleep risks a thrashing."
The worst airports reflect the vices of the governments that regulate them. Pyongyang has a totalitarian vibe. A correspondent writes: "The plane played rousing music when we flew over the border into North Korea, and we were handed copies of the national newspaper and asked not to fold it, since it had a photo of Kim Jong Il on the front page." The only consolation is that the airport has a chocolate-fondue fountain.
Poor countries have an excuse for poor airports. Rich countries do not, which is perhaps why travelers are particularly irked to find grittiness in, say, Brussels, Belgium, the heart of the European Union and a noted center of gastronomy. Our Charlemagne columnist writes of Charleroi, its second airport: "It is grim, grimy and cramped, and has atrocious food. The planes leave and land at ungodly hours. And the only real way into town is a coach that runs every 30 minutes and is frequently overbooked."
Many correspondents moaned about Berlin, where a new, unfinished terminal is six years late. Another European airport that elicits howls is Luton, England, which claims, fancifully, to be close to London. An intern writes: "Going on holiday and returning to Luton is like having a wonderful dream and waking up to find yourself in a puddle under a railway bridge."
Our overall judgment is that, adjusted for national income per head, several busy U.S. airports would be contenders for worst in the world.
Washington Dulles has the worst-designed ground transport: travelers must enter and leave a mobile pod by the same door, so everyone crowds round in the hope of getting off first, thus blocking it. JFK is the main gateway to the world's capital of consumerism, yet scarcely any retail therapy is available to treat travelers' boredom.
But Miami is surely worst of all. The queues at passport control take nearly as long to navigate as Leif Erikson took to cross the Atlantic in a longboat.