Thursday, October 25, 2007


There is a big chance you have visited large airports like Heathrow, JFK or Charles de Gaulle. Big is beautiful – isn’t it?

But the chances are even bigger that you almost got a heart attack – or something similar like foam bursting out of your ears - during endless periods of waiting, yet another security check and frustratingly long delays (see picture on your right; a random customer at a large airport).

Ever tried to get from East-London to Heathrow?

Two hours of travelling on the tube in order to get there three hours before departure which is commonly delayed by an hour and a half. In other words: Seven hours of stress before you even board your plane. The same time it takes to travel between New York and Paris. Or read a medium seized novel. Or smoke a pack of cigarettes, which is of course strictly forbidden at most airports.

So, if you have the chance, you might want to try something different. Because when it comes to airports my motto is: small is beautiful. Actually, the smaller the better. That said: I understand that an airport without a runway would be too small.

Recently I flew, with Malev, Hungarian Airlines, from Beirut in Lebanon via Budapest in Hungary to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Agreed – not the most common route. But, my god: joy! hurray! What a pleasure! (see picture left for a, mildly exaggerated, view of the toilet ladies at Beirut airport)

In Beirut I live almost as far from the airport as possible. So it took me, travelling by car, exactly eight minutes to reach it. Ok, it was night and I’m a fast driver. But even by day, it won’t take you more than 20 minutes.

Since Beirut is a city along the Mediterranean the developers were so clever to build the airport right outside the city, not 80 kilometers away (see picture, right, below). Still, there is hardly any noise pollution. This because planes arrive from and depart to the side of the sea. Basically, planes here keep fish awake, not people.

Beirut’s airport is, more or less, 200 times more modern and clean than, let’s say, Heathrow. Yes, with around 20 gates it is much smaller. But much more convenient too. One big hall where people arrive. And, you guessed it right, one big hall where people depart. It took me, quite literally, ten minutes to get through security, check-in and customs.

Only airport-fanatics or invalids arrive here two or three hours before departure. In reality, one hour will do. Time enough to deal with formalities, shop in the well stocked duty free area, surf the net via a wireless connection (ok, you have to pay for this service). As it never takes longer than three minutes to reach your gate, you even have time to taste a freshly made cappuccino in the coffee shop. And remember – this all after having arrived only one hour before departure.

Another major PLUS at Beirut airport: You are allowed to smoke! How is this possible? Well, one half of the coffee corner is non-smoking, the other half is smoking. Everybody happy. Life can be so simple. (Non-smoking airports are, by far the Mother of all silly Ideas. Sure, a cigarette pollutes. But what to think of ONE AIRPLANE – which basically has a polluting equivalent of 4 BILLION cigarettes).

Anyhow, 2 hours 50 minutes later we landed at Budapest airport. You think London is centrally located? Well, maybe to get you to Brighton or Liverpool. But if you want to travel Europe, Budapest is the place to start. London at 2 hours, Paris at 1.40 hr, Istanbul at 2 hr. And direct flight to the US.

That morning at Budapest-airport (pic left), luggage arrived within five minutes. Going through customs – literally 10 seconds. Before heading for the center of town (for only 19 euros, not 70 euros like in London), another cappuccino at a very decent snack corner. Here, check your email on your lap top, read your favorite online newspaper, watch some youtube. Yes – access to very fast wifi Internet is FREE at this airport. In the meanwhile, smoke your morning cigarette. Again: Half non-smoking, half smoking (Do only Arabs and Eastern Europeans think logically these days???). After relaxing at the airport, I reached the center of Budapest in 35 minutes - not bad for a city with two million people.

A couple of days later, my plane for Sarajevo was suppose to leave at around 12.45 pm. As I woke up in a Budapest bed at around 10.30 I realized I did not have a ticket yet for Sarajevo. 45 minutes later I jumped in a taxi and - with some lucky green traffic lights - reached Budapest airport around 11.45, one hour before departure. At the Malev ticket counter, it wasn't a problem at all to buy one at such short notice. It almost seemed like the friendly saleswoman was surprised I did not arrive later.

Of course, the flight to Sarajevo left on time. Well, to be honest, there was a six minute delay. Arrival at Sarajevo airport (see pic) 50 minutes later. Again - just like Beirut and Budapest - shiny, new and clean. And - again - so convenient. It did not surprise me at all that Sarajevo airport has won the award for Best Airport under 1 million passengers. As I was really enjoying this trip, I now used a stopwatch. From plane through passport check: 2.20 min. Waiting for luggage: 3.45 min. From luggage, through customs to first coffee at the airport: 32 seconds.

Of course, I felt happy to have reached destination Sarajevo. But secretly I thought: Wow, can't wait for the return part of this trip.

Some useful links:

Beirut Rafic Hariri international airport here.
MEA (Middle East Airlines - the national carrier of Lebanon) here.

Budapest international airport here.
Malev (Hungarian Airlines) here.

Sarajevo international airport here.
BH Airlines (I have to be fair, a pretty crappy airline. Fly Malev, Turkish Airlines or Lufthansa instead) here.

Harald Doornbos


Bom said...

So travel was easy..but it took you A couple of days' of waiting for your plane to leave for Sarajevo from Budapest? :-P

Harald Doornbos said...

Yes, but I chose to do so. basically wanted a two day stay in budapest, then went to sarajevo. There is a daily flight between budapest and sarajevo.


m.p. said...

"I understand that an airport without a runway would be too small."


Harald Doornbos said...

@ m.p.

But it is true! lol

Anonymous said...

Quite clearly you've never been to airport Ferihegy 1, the old airport. They still use it these days and I've never seen a more boring and dated airport in my life.

Harald Doornbos said...

what to expect if you fly with these budget airlines... normal airlines use the new airport.