My claim to be an old Asian hand springs from 1974-1979 when I lived first in Jakarta for two years and then Hong Kong. I spent a fair amount of time travelling around the region and got to know its airports which were very different from those you’d use nowadays.
They had their own individual characters but shared basic features which characterised the region and differentiated them from contemporary airports elsewhere. They were all pretty small and close to the centres of the cities which they served with most of them having their origins as military airports in pre-war days. There was little by way of technology in use beyond a departures board and walking to and from your plane generally involved stepping outside; when you were arriving you immediately got a whiff of Asia, its smells and its humidity. There was a bar which anchored the departures terminal and was a magnet for those Asian hands who grabbed a drink whenever the music stopped.
Jakarta: Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport. This was my ‘home’ airport for two years and you might say that it was the model for Norman Foster’s design of Stansted Airport (as it was built, not as it is now). You got dropped out front then a short walk straight ahead to check in, most of the time it was a choice between Garuda and Singapore Airlines , then turn right and walk through immigration (surely it should be emigration) and you’re in the departure lounge with maybe four doors for boarding, only one or two of which were ever in use.
In the corner of the departure lounge was the bar and I remember bumping into Andrew Unwin there whilst waiting for one early morning flight. I’d known him at college but not seen him until that chance meeting and I’ve not seen him since. I guess it was that sort of place. Ex pats in Jakarta when asked what was best about the city were said to reply ‘the bar in the departure lounge at Halim’.
There was some rudimentary security. Sometimes you walked through an arch, I never knew whether or not that was powered up, at other times there was a chap with a hand scanner connected to his ear phones. You then walked outside and across the apron to board your plane.
Everything changed at the time of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that many Muslims do to Mecca. Whole families would descend on the airport to send off their one member who might be participating and they’d then camp out all over the airport until he or she returned.
There were two other airports in Indonesia which I frequented. Kemayoran Airport handled domestic flights and I used it when I flew up to Medan on business. I typically took early morning flights and they prepared me well for early morning Ryanair out of Stansted. Most internal flights were on Garuda which anticipated the idea of no frills air travel 20 years before they arrived in Europe.
Medan Polonia Airport was simpler again. You could wait until you could see your plane coming in before you went to the airport and if you thought you might have time to kill you rang the bar and asked them to put beer in the fridge. Typically I’d schedule my visits to Medan on a Thursday/Friday and then return to Jakarta via Singapore
Singapore: Payar Lebar Airport. I flew between Jakarta and Singapore dozens of times, always on Singapore Airlines, and its airport was different in scale to Halim. It was another simple check-in but this time there would have been a host of airline desks as befitted an airport which operated as a regional hub and was an essential stopping point for the Europe to Australia flights.
The airport was a bit more of a rabbit warren that Halim with lots of money changers and well-stocked shops and then when you got through into the departure lounge there was a big bar/cafeteria upstairs.
It was a busy airport and it says much for the organisational efficiency of the Singaporeans that it worked well without the luxury of airbridges and the like. And whereas when you walked out at Halim to board the planes were somehow of human scale, the jumbos at Payar Lebar were enormous
Bangkok: Don Mueang (International) Airport. I flew into Don Mueang first in 1972 when I returned from my first visit to Asia. I stayed in Bangkok for a few days before flying out. It must have been the rainy season because it was chucking it down when I arrived at the airport but at least the check in area was under cover. It was a standard check-in with a big picture of the seating plan behind the check-in desk, you chose a seat and the check-in clerk took a sticker off the picture and stuck it on your boarding pass. Simple and effective and not uncommon throughout Asia in those days.
The problems came when the flight was called. As with all airports we had to walk to the plane but it was raining so we got wet and there was a fair amount of flooding which we had to wade through. I’m not sure it made for a very comfortable flight.
I used Don Mueang frequently during my time in Hong Kong and one feature stood out: long long taxi times. In common with most of the other airports it had begun life as a military airbase and in the 70s shared its runways with it. As geometry would have it at Don Mueang that meant long taxi times.
Hong Kong: Kai Tak Airport. Compared to the airports in south east Asia Kai Tak airport was pretty advanced. It was better positioned than Singapore to be a regional hub and its home airline, Cathay Pacific, took full advantage of that. It was my home airport when I live in Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific gave me my first gold card.
If you haven’t flown into or out of Kai Tak you can’t imagine what it was like. Cheek by jowl with the high rises of Kowloon you flew low over them before dipping down to land. I sat in the cockpit a few times; it was an incredible experience.
Kai Tak was, like Paya Lebar, a fully fledged commercial airport with shops and money changers. There was a bar in the centre and it was noisy with flight announcements and the pursuit of errant passengers. Cathay Pacific gave their passengers stickers to wear on check in so that their ground staff could find them when they were looking for the ‘last two remaining passengers’ so that a flight could close and be on its way.
Despite its limitations Kai Tak was ahead of the other airports in the introduction of air bridges but there were insufficient to manage all the flights so that meant buses too for loading and unloading. When you were arriving at Kai Tak and it was a bus job you had to remember that there was a front door to the bus and if you sat next to it you’d be first off.
Tokyo: Haneda Airport. Even in those days Tokyo’s Haneda airport was a step up from the scale and sophistication of its southern neighbours and I have fond memories because it was the first airport I used after Heathrow and Amsterdam. It was also my first exposure to Asia and specifically Japan.
In those days of course you generally had to fill in a landing card before you got to immigration where the officer would carefully check it against your passport before stamping your passport with an appropriate flourish. The card for Japan was admirably concise, even if there was insufficient room to enter your full address into the address field, and the officer handled it with meticulous care, filing one part, it came with a carbon copy, and stapling the other inside your passport perfectly aligning it with the edge of its pages.
Like all the other airports it was starting to burst at the seams and although the Japanese had done their planning some pesky famers slowed progress at the new airport in Narita.
Haneda still operates as an international airport and I used it just a few years ago. It’s changed. Sadly all the little Japanese nick-nack shops have gone and it’s like all the other faceless airports in the world with big designer outlets in their place.
40 years on and it’s all change of course with big new purpose built airports replacing all of the above. They are all vast, except perhaps Narita, fully technology enabled and soulless. There are few local features otherwise they reflect the owners of the airports obsession with maximising revenues with designer brand shops. Changi (Singapore) has perhaps not sold out completely, there’s still a local character to the airport, but otherwise there’s little to choose between them.