When asked what my favourite things about living in Hong Kong are, I often get a strange reaction when I say that the city’s airport and home airline of Cathay Pacific would both make it into the top three. Seeing as I needn’t interact with either on a daily basis and the two entities are directly involved in taking me out of the city, a love of why I go to Hong Kong International Airport seems an almost unfaithful assessment for some people.
Of course, there are many wonderful things about the city – many of which I’m being reminded of as we put the finishing touches to our first Hong Kong travel guide. But if there’s ever been a time that I’ve felt totally confident in my championing of Hong Kong’s approach of air travel, it’s now – after having just spent a week or so reminded of the state of airports and airlines in the US.
Last week involved making several trips in and out of various American airports on an American carrier. With Hong Kong as my new benchmark, all the years that I spent living and travelling within the US did little to soften the blow of the experience. Arduous and apathetic security procedures, antiquated terminal retail, damaged baggage, delayed flights and staff who had clearly skived during the charm section of employee training; landing back into Hong Kong at the end of it all felt like the beginning and not the end of a holiday.
According to a recent report, airline performance in the US was at its lowest last year since 2009. More flights were delayed and more baggage was lost, yet fuel is cheaper and profits are being turned by the carriers. Passengers seem to have no choice but to put up with this.
But, while there seems to be no one who has found the right formula to fix all that’s wrong with nearly every American carrier, there does at least seem to be light at the end of the tunnel with the experience on the ground. For the first time, I flew in and out of the fully completed Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. While still irritating, the check-in, security and immigration processes at least took place in facilities that didn’t resemble a hospital or portable building. The retail on offer airside is surely among the best in any international terminal. Fred Segal – the classic Los Angeles department store – has an outpost there with a digital version of the original store’s iconic green exterior wall and an interior merchandised to give an authentic experience of the brand rather than the usual, diluted travel version.
Similarly vernacular dining outposts of popular LA spots such as Umami Burger are tidy and tucked away from the well laid-out retail offering. A nearly ceiling-high digital departures board hovers above the main concourse, making it visible from nearly everywhere thus removing the messy cluster of travellers around a small board looking for their flight’s gate. And while still not fully completed, the lounges feel like they’ve been designed with the traveller – rather than the airline’s accountant – in mind. All in, the experience was exciting and comfortable, much like it is when flying from Hong Kong International Airport or other good Asian terminals.
It has not been a good 18 months for the reputation of air travel in Asia. And it’s clear that the rapid growth of the region’s industry (especially that of its budget airlines) needs to occur alongside strict safety training. But what is certain is that the region remains home to some of the world’s best airlines and airports. And I still think that if you’ve got to choose anywhere to have a layover, Hong Kong is the place to do it.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.