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Is LaGuardia Really Worse than a Third-World Airport? Let’s Look at the Facts

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Inside_terminal_at_LaGuardia_Airport_-_20070208Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden caused a stir when he claimed that if you blindfolded a person and put them in New York’s LaGuardia Airport, they would feel like they were “in a third-world country.” It’s easy to understand what Biden was trying to say, but is there any legitimacy to his claim?

In fact, there are a few “third-world” airports that offer a little healthy debate to the Vice President’s claims. Keep in mind, the definition of first, second, and third world is actually muddy and not officially defined so, for this purpose, we’re using the Human Development Index, published by the United Nations Development Programme. The HDI classifies countries into four categories of Very High, High, Medium, and Low human development, using metrics like years of schooling, gender inequalities, and income per capita. The United States now ranks third in the HDI but, for comparison’s sake, we’ll consider countries in the low and medium categories.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 2.52.33 PMJinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan, was slowly built up in the early 1900s and renovated with a terminal for international flights in 1992. Though Pakistan is ranked 146th out of 186 in the HDI, its airport has something thoroughly modern: free Wi-Fi throughout the airport. LaGuardia has you paying $4.95 per hour. The Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority claims a host of amenities such as restaurants, lots of shops and lounges, help for the elderly and disabled with things like transport carts and disabled toilets, ATMs, and 24-hour cab services to and from the airport. There are a number of reasonable hotels surrounding the airport. The only consistent suggestion to make your journey easier is to use old-school approaches when it comes to ticketing—don’t depend on an e-ticket, do it the old-fashioned way, with paper tickets.

400px-Bole_international_airportEthiopia ranks 173rd in the HDI. The country’s Addis Ababa International Airport in the city of Addis Ababa is a hub for international flights, and if you’re looking to go on a safari, you’ll likely fly through here. Renovated in 2003, the new interior is sleek—think white and dark gray tiling, steel, glass, and high ceilings. The airport offers free Wi-Fi, restaurants and gift shops; private lounges are accessible for a fee. The airport is one of the busiest in Africa, which could make for delays and security hassles. There are lots of hotels around the airport, and many have booths in the terminal so you can book before exiting.  Two taxi types go to and from the airport. The first is the usual kind. The second operates like a bus, charging a flat fee and driving along defined routes. The cool thing is that you can hail them from the street instead of a bus stop, as long as they have space to pull over.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 2.42.27 PMThe 69th best airport in the world according to Skytrax World Airport Awards is the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India, which is the 136th country in the HDI. It’s the busiest airport in India with about 35 million passengers in 2011 to 2012. In recent years, it has transformed from a dingy, cramped space to a large, airy, clean, and modern airport. There are a multitude of shops and restaurants, lounges, bars, palm trees inside the building, and artistic endeavors like art installations and occasional musical or dance performances. There is also Wi-Fi, but this time it’s for a fee. There is a transit hotel within the airport, and many options just outside.

1600px-CTIA-InsideNewTerminalRising in the Skytrax World Airport Awards from the 27th best airport in 2012 to the 22nd in 2013 is Cape Town International Airport in South Africa, a country ranked 121st in the HDI. Opened in 1954, it has about 8 million passengers per year and flies direct to major cities in Europe and a few further east. It’s got restaurants and shops, a pharmacy, electronics stores. There are quite a few well reviewed and reasonably prices hotels around the area. There are the usual car rental services, shuttles to and from the airport, and a few taxi services.

So what about LaGuardia? Well, it’s not on the radar at all for Skytrax’s awards. It’s overcrowded and there are lots of delays. Pictures and reviews online show the airport falling apart: paint chipping off the walls, electrical outlets ripped out and exposed, and various materials strewn about. One particular picture shows a ceiling leak fixed by tape and a white tarp around the leak. A hose punctured into the bottom flows into a traffic cone sitting in a bin. There is no train that connects the airport to the greater city. It does have the usual NYC taxi cabs, a reasonable amount of hotels around it, and modest but present food and shops.

LaGuardia handles about 25 million passengers per year, which can easily be the cause of most of LaGuardia’s problems — the airport just isn’t equipped to handle the traffic. It opened for commercial flights in 1939, and back then it was a big deal: then president of American Airlines C.R. Smith called the airfield the “world’s greatest development in civil aviation since Lindbergh flew the Atlantic.” There are plans for a 3.6 billion dollar renovation and a new terminal, however, so LaGuardia may jump to an esteemed spot relatively soon.

For more information, check out, Why US Airports Are Failing to Keep up Globally. Don’t miss this recent CBS News report.

By Cody Brooks for