Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar claimed the top spot in the 2021 Skytrax World Airport Awards, knocking Singapore’s Changi airport off the top spot for the first time in nearly a decade.
Skytrax is a United Kingdom-based aviation research and consulting company that conducts customer surveys on commercial aviation, reviews airlines, airports, and airport lounges, and ranks airlines and airports. Its World Airport Awards began in 1999.
Surveys of airline passengers are conducted online. There are millions of responses each year. Suspect or duplicate entries from the same IP address are rejected. The survey for the 2021 awards was conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese between August 2020 and July 2021. More than 100 customer nationalities participated.
There is no entry fee or any type of payment by an airport (or other third party). The survey and awards process paid for by Skytrax.
The Top Ten
Changi Airport in Singapore had been number one for eight years in a row but in 2021 placed third behind second place Tokyo Haneda. Here are the airports that made the top 10 in 2021.
- Hamad International
- Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND
- Singapore Changi Airport (SIN)
- Incheon International Airport (ICN)
- Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT)
- Munich Airport (MUC)
- Zurich Airport (ZRH)
- London Heathrow Airport (LHR)
- Kansai International Airport (KIX)
- Hong Kong International Airport (HKG)
The complete list of the top 100 is here.
Having flown through each of the top 10, except for Munich, I’m in general agreement with the airports found in the top 10. Ranking them comes down to splitting hairs. Passengers should have a great experience in each one.
Tokyo Narita and London Heathrow are the only ones of the Skytrax Top 10 that I would rank lower. I’d move Amsterdam Schiphol from number 12 and Guangzhou from number 14 into the top 10.
Dethroning Changi Airport, which held the top spot for the last eight years is quite a feat for Hamid International. HIA has been in the top five for several years. In anticipation of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar Airways and the government of Qatar have worked to make Hamid International as second to none.
Qatar Airways by far operates the most flights at HIA. Depending on the length of the layover, travelers on Qatar Airways who have a connecting flight at HIA can enjoy free city tours, gratis accommodations and food. There is also a VIP transfer service where airline employees meet visitors as they deplane and guide them seamlessly through the airport and onto their connecting flight.
Normally, a layover of 10 hours or more would be a nightmare. Airports like Hamid, Changi and Seoul/Incheon offer tours, lounges, showers, movies and other services that make long layovers almost desirable. I’ve never had a layover long enough to take advantage of those services in Doha but have taken a very informative free city tour of Singapore on a layover.
Skytrax surveys passenger attitudes in about 40 different aspects of the traveler experience from check-in, transfers, shopping, dining, security and immigration through departure at the gate.
There are only a handful of overriding factors that determine how much I like an airport. First, I prefer airports that have only one terminal or, if more than one terminal, the terminals should be connected without having to go through security. Having one terminal is tough as airports get larger and larger. Hamad, Kansai (Osaka), Schiphol, and Zurich have one terminal.
Changi airport has four terminals, but they are connected by an efficient people mover system and security is performed at the gate. Security at the gate rather than at some other location means passengers shouldn’t miss a flight if they get hung up in a security line.
Beijing Daxing Airport that opened in 2019 has only one terminal. It didn’t make the top 100 probably because it is new and there hasn’t been much experience with it because of Covid. In that aspect, Daxing is a big improvement over Beijing Capital Airport that has three terminals. At Capital getting from one terminal to another requires a 15-minute bus ride and going through security and passport control. To make matters worse there, changing terminals is not unusual because airlines from the same airline alliance are not always located in the same terminal.
Second, passport control procedures can are important in determining how much I like an airport. We are spoiled in the U.S. in that there is no need for passport checks on departing the country, only arrival. Economy passengers and all passengers where there are no separate lines for first and business class can have a long wait at times. Passengers flying in business or first class usually have separate passport control lanes with shorter lines and wait times.
The time required to get through passport control and customs on arrival also plays a key role in the airport experience. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport consistently has long wait times at passport control. Standing in line for 30 or 40 minutes is particularly vexing after long flights in coach. Getting to the hotel and actually lying down is usually is the top priority. If possible, I try to use points or miles for a business class ticket to Bangkok just to take advantage of the separate, much quicker immigration lines for passengers in a premium cabin.
A third factor is security. Security procedures vary from country to country. China’s routine is one of the most onerous. I travel with several electronic devices, including computer, cell phone(s), camera(s), chargers, battery packs, and connecting cords. Unpacking and repacking all of those items is time consuming and aggravating.
London Heathrow doesn’t make my top 10 because my arriving flights often require bus transfers between terminals and security screenings in a central location not at the gate. Heathrow Terminal 5 has great lounges, shopping and food, but several times I’ve had problems at security requiring basically dumping the contents of my carry on bag and backpack at the security counter. Why me!?
Fourth is the size of the gates. In this regard the Asian airports excel, and many western airports, especially in America, leave much to be desired. In the U.S., boarding passengers often stand in the walkway clogging up the concourse, and the boarding process is usually a cluster blank in spite of assigned boarding groups.
Seoul/Incheon airport is typical of modern airports outside Europe and America.
There gates are spacious and boarding is orderly not only because there is more room but they utilize enough agents to ensure passengers are correctly lined up and to scan boarding passes as passengers board.
Finally, the ease of getting to and from an airport is also important. Hamad is the only airport in the top 10 that is not served by a train to the city. It has bus connections as do the others. An airport bus can be better than a train for getting to/from an airport.
Whether by bus or train, the distance from the city to the airport is also important. Tokyo Narita and Kansai International require long journeys from Tokyo and Osaka, respectively. The train to Kansai doesn’t even begin operating in time to use it for early morning flights. At least Kansai only has one terminal.
These are my thoughts on the Skytrax 2021 airport rankings. Do you agree with Skytrax? What are the most important factors in your evaluation of an airport? Please leave your comments below. Thanks!