A new survey by Airport Council International ranks the world’s top airports, with Indianapolis coming first in North America and Seoul soaring to the top in Asia-Pacific.

For frequent travellers, a good airport can make the difference between a pleasant trip and an unpleasant one.

So when Airport Council International (ACI) recently announced its ranking of the best airports in 2012, smart travellers paid attention. Which airports flew in with a smooth landing? Indianapolis Airport was ranked first in North America, Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport is the best in Europe, and Seoul Incheon Airport soared to the top in the Asia-Pacific region.

To come up with its ranking, ACI conducted a survey of more than 350,000 passengers at more than 200 airports in more than 50 countries. Though the survey questions are not made public, passengers were asked prior to boarding to rate their satisfaction with the airport they were in, presumably including questions about ticketing and security lines, airport signage, airport navigability and retail and dining options, among others.

The organisation divides its awards into four categories: best airport by region, best airport by size, best small airport and best improvement. Some of the more interesting results were Hohhot Baita Airport in China’s Inner Mongolia region, an often overlooked airport that was voted the best in its size category; and Nagoya Airport in Japan, which edged out its bigger, more well-known competitors in Tokyo and Osaka.

But one question that the ACI report didn’t answer is: what makes an airport good?

A good airport should be easily accessible by car and public transportation, such as Hong Kong Airport where Airport Express trains ferry passengers from downtown to the airport in 20 minutes. And for large airports, easy-to-use intra-transportation is key for getting from one terminal to another in a short period of time.

A well-designed airport goes a long way to reducing passenger stress. Enclosed corridors, drab terminals and confusing layouts are out; while modern spaces, easily navigable layouts and plenty of natural light are in. To see the best, fly through Spain’s Madrid-Barajas Airport, which won a Stirling Prize for design in 2006, the “architectural Oscar”.

Well thought out signs get travellers where they need to be – whether it’s their gate, baggage claim, restaurants or the taxi stand – with minimal time and confusion. Among the hallmarks of good airport signage are consistency, colour-coding, and large, easy-to-read words and figures. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Frankfurt Airport and Athens Airport come out on top for their clean, simple signage.

Endless lines for check-in, security, boarding, baggage claim and immigration can make flying enormously inefficient. A good airport does its best to minimize wait times by promoting online and self-service checking, providing sufficient staffing at bottlenecks (such as ticketing and security) and having signs and personnel ready to guide and inform confused passengers. Fly through Munich, Helsinki-Vantaa or Denver airports for quick and efficient processing.

Once a traveller has reached his or her gate, nothing makes for memorable airport experience like an excellent retail and restaurant landscape. For dining, think quick grab-and-go meals as well as luxurious dine-in restaurants and different cuisines. For retail, think of a good mix of duty free, chain and unique boutiques. And the very best airports bring in some local flavour, offering food and products that reflect its unique location and character. Dubai Airport is one of the best for its slick, high-end retail experience.

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