Singapore – The rooftop hot tub, movie theater, and tropical butterfly garden, inspired the Wall Street Journal to recently proclaim Singapore's Changi International Airport possibly the "world's best airport." They're right that those features are great, but the Journal missed the airport's best feature (compared to U.S. and most other Western airports): security, customs, and immigration.
Even before I had a chance to enjoy the amusement park slide, the wide variety of stores, or the soothing ambient music (a nice change from the endless stream of headache-educing announcements in most other airports), it was my experience at passport control that gave me my "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more" moment.
The gentleman – and yes, his behavior merited that term – took my passport, smiled, and offered me some candy from the counter, while completing his passport check. Security was a similar novel experience: The official politely asked me to take off my jacket, apologized for the inconvenience, and delicately placed it into the tray, to avoid creases.
The lines themselves only took minutes – no standing around looking ridiculous while trying to balance your bags, shoes, laptop, and belt as an agent studies your bottle of water. After I cleared the line an airport worker stopped me to ask if I would mind answering few questions: "How satisfied were you with the security process?" "Were the officials friendly enough?" "Did they smile?" I searched for the hidden reality show cameras, wondering for a second if this was a big joke.
When I complimented a government official on how pleasant the airport experience was, he replied: "But of course, the airport is the first and last taste people have of our country, and we want it to be a pleasant one." The logic is clear – a pleasant experience makes people likely to come back, and tell others that it's worth the journey – but those running U.S. airports (or most European ones for that matter) simply don't get it.
Indeed, at Western airports, the experience of security, customs, and immigration is about as pleasant as a colonoscopy. Officials appear disinterested in security unless it involves forcing you to remove items of clothing; they communicate through snarls, grunts, and half-sentences; and generally act like surly adolescents. I wouldn't trust them to watch my laptop for five minutes, let alone protect an airport.