Is Islamabad airport really the worst airport in the world?

Published: October 31, 2014

I still gave the airport the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I just came across it on a bad day. PHOTO: AFP

Imagine the worst airport you can think of.

Multiply it by 10.

Then multiply it further by 20.

Drop the resulting figure in a barrel, and throw that barrel away where the sun doesn’t shine. At the bottom of the crater created by this barrel drop, you will find Islamabad airport.

I had the misfortune of travelling via Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport some months back, and I’m glad that has been my only visit to the place. Unless someone holds a gun against my head, I have made it a point to never travel via this airport again. From the outside, it comes across as a regular Pakistani airport, and not too shabby compared to its Lahore and Karachi counterparts. However, when you step inside the airport is when the horror strikes.

After you’re done getting your boarding pass, you enter the departure lounge. You look around, and it starts before it ends. If you thought Heathrow was crowded, you obviously haven’t visited Islamabad airport. With litter on the floor and no janitor in sight, you begin to wonder if they ever clean this place. I’m sure they do, only when they have nothing better to do.

When you finally find a seat, you sit and it strikes you off balance. After you’re done with the tedious exercise of finding a new seat, a repelling smell hits your nose. It’s not the airport kitchen, it’s not litter – it’s the washrooms adjacent to the departure lounges. The taps run like waterfalls, and a smell floats like air across the entire lounge – a smell worse than that pungent smell of your neighbourhood sewage system. Even if you want to go to the washroom, Mother Nature is so repulsed that she tells you to stay put and decides to visit you at some other time.

When you’re sure that it can’t get worse than this, you come across the waiters. You ask one of them if they have tea, and they pass by giving you a scathing look. You have obviously interfered with their doctor-recommended evening stroll. When you finally come across a waiter who is done with his evening stroll, you ask him if he has tea, and voila! He does. The only problem is that when you drink the tea, you realise that it’s nothing more than mildly warm coloured water. Enough of the departure lounge, you say; your ears and eyes wait for the call that tells you that you can start boarding the plane now.

And then it happens.

You excitedly pick up your hand luggage, relieved to finally be leaving this place. You start walking towards your gate and you come across a glass door. Where’s the gate you ask your fellow passengers? And they say you just crossed it. Much like the moment you enter the departure lounge, the gate ends before it starts.

I still gave the airport the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I just came across it on a bad day.

But a few weeks down the road a friend of mine visited Islamabad via air, and she showed me some pictures that reinstated my earlier belief of the airport. It was a particularly rainy day in Islamabad then, and the pictures showed a quarter of the departure lounge with rain water. Yes, rain water. It came across as a picture out of a government hospital at first glance, but sadly it wasn’t.

Photo: Salman Zafar

Then, to top it all, a cat was enjoying the rain water in the departure lounge. Yes, a four-legged furry creature was inside the departure lounge. Such is the story of our capital’s airport.

Photo: Salman Zafar

Photo: Salman Zafar

The icing on the cake: A recent survey has ranked Islamabad airport the worst in the world. The honour dished out to this national joke’s presence in our federal capital is hardly far off from the truth. While there are probably worse airports among global federal capitals, they are almost exclusively limited to fiction books.

Islamabad airport warrants every inch of fun poked at it. It’s not harsh. It’s not unwarranted. It’s justified in the most glorious of manners. Thankfully, it is also one of the few things that most Pakistanis can agree upon.

No one expects Islamabad airport to be among the best in the world. But there is nothing wrong in expecting our federal capital to have an airport that doesn’t remind you of public washrooms on GT Road or the Lahore Zoo.

salman Zafar

Salman Zafar

The writer works in the Education Sector and tweets as @salmanzafar1985 (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Natasha

    Okay, this is so true! That airport makes me want to go to Karachi by car. It stinks and the bathrooms are horrible, and there is absolutely no concept of cleanliness. I hope the new airport is better than this one.
    Our main problem is maintenance. We build everything, but we never maintain it. If we focus on that, maybe a lot could turn around for the better.Recommend

  • Nzaar

    Lahore zoo is amazing. Please don’t compare it to the Islamabad airport!Recommend

  • Oats

    I am sure that the haters will be the first to throw garbage around themselves. Ask yourself, did you pick up any of the garbage you saw strewn around and help to clean up the place or did you just complain?Recommend

  • Natasha

    I have always picked up my garbage but I can’t really clean the bathroom now, can I?Recommend

  • H Q

    being a Pakistani, i feel disgusted when people with little knowledge about the world over-act over such matters. Kindly travel to Damascus Airport, or to Dhaka airport, and then talk about Islamabad Airport. I am a regular traveler through Isb airport and I did not find the toilets to be worse than any airport with such a large number of daily travelers. The writer has twice posted the picture of the same stray cat in different locations between the boarding counter and near the immigration counters. Yes, Karachi and Lahore Airports are much bigger and better. And I’m sure Islamabad’s new airport will be outstanding. However, let’s focus our energies on constructive criticism instead of taunts.Recommend

  • Muhammed Waqar Younis

    welcome to pakistan!…land of pure…hahaRecommend

  • Alann

    You should be proud.. Islamabad airport ranked first in the world! None of those evil Indian airports came anywhere nearby!Recommend

  • Kaleem

    I travel a lot and live in Islamabad, I totally agree with you its not the best airport but I think Salman made it too dramatic, its does get overcrowded but its not that bad. Anyway a new airport will be ready soon hopefully we won’t be among the lowest ranking airports.Recommend

  • Cats are clean animals

    Poor little pussycat ..cats generally hate water,so she/he could’ve been enjoying the rain water. She/he was probably miserable & trying to get away from the rain & seeking shelter in the airport.
    Anyway,a cat getting into a building isn’t a bad thing or like a dog/goat/cow getting inside. Cats go everywhere,including clean buildings with kitchens…hostels,hospitals,residential areas…Recommend

  • Nasir

    I landed & departed from the Islamabad airport during October this year. Since I had arrived in the middle of the night with few arrivals, the immigration and customs went quite smoothly & without much delay (was a little surprised when I heard some expletives from an airport employee while on the phone to someone).

    The parking area is probably the worst of any international airport. Further, the security measures do not make the airport appear very friendly.

    On departure, again things went rather surprisingly smoothly (I made sure my bags were not over weight). I had forgotten to take out a pair of scissors from my bag, which security detected and politely asked me remove. The departure lounge wasn’t anything to write home about. However, it was nothing like the article portrays. I can see that it could get very crowded when multiple flights were departing close to each other.

    In short, no question a lot of small improvements can be done to make the airport look a lot nicer. E.g. the wall of a lounge (think it said CIP lounge needed a paint job badly. Garbage collection which was happening while I was there needs to appear more professional (must say person appeared very dedicated but transparent bags full of garbage – not good). Use non transparent bags. The money changer booth should not be crowded with five people who appear to be partying (Kulfi was being enjoyed at leisure) etc. etc.Recommend

  • Ch. Allah Daad

    This was the reason opposition did not object when Islamabad Airport was named after Benazir Bhutto.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    We do not need modern airports. Even if we had an expensive modern airport the reality of Pakistan sets in once you leave the airport. Why spend huge sums on Airports when we spend the money on schools. Pakistan is what it is like it or not.Recommend

  • ahsan221

    i traveled all the way from Peshawar to Lahore just to avoid going through Islamabad airportRecommend

  • Sparrow

    And how many times did you clean up any public property.

    When you pay for your ticket, it includes a significant amount on account of taxes. Using these taxes airport employees are being paid, which includes the janitorial staff, who are supposed to clean the airport. So, Yes everyone travelling via air are contributing their share.Recommend

  • Indian

    How is your comment ,relevant ? Even with the sarcasm,it’s out of context..Recommend

  • Haseeb

    I travel out of isb twice every week, and yes on occasions it presents a dismal pictures, but on most of the days, it is alright. Now ‘alright’ is not good enough, and we sure should try to improve it, but alright is for sure better then lets say Manila / Jeddah / Siem Reap.Recommend

  • Savvy

    People seem to forget that this place is actually chaklala airfield. It was converted into an airport. Since it was not purpose built, it lacks everything that an airport must have. Thankfully new airport is going to be operational soon. Recommend

  • normskyy

    There will be no new airport people. A distant dream like the rivers of honey in gwadar, mian jees bullet train and other fads. It has been in the making for decades, with people making money on tenders, material, land etc… It still wont be made. The pti dharna is the cause of the airport coming in as the worst. Please don’t blame N or PPP. They aren’t being allowed to clean the airport!!! Recommend

  • Hamza

    hahahahahaha, (Y)Recommend

  • Huh?

    That is the reason itlacks janitorial staff? Plumbers who can stop washrooms from overflowing?Recommend

  • Masti

    CAA is the real problem.
    They gobble up billions of Rupees collected every year from various charges.Only about 1 out of 100 is actually spent on airport maintenance.You cannot find a paper cup to drink water.Corruption runs from the director general to the porter,to the phone booth operator.Everyone tries to have their pound of flesh from the traveler.Once I wanted to make a one minute local call to my home asking to be picked up.The call ran for 3 minutes.The operator asked for Rs.300,eventually settled for Rs.100.The taxi drivers who run amok all along the lounges,yank for hapless arriving passengers.
    New airport will not serve the purpose unless corruption is checked.Recommend

  • Maulana Maulvi

    The new Islamabad Airport will be very beautiful.Recommend

  • Oats

    Your response shows me only that you probably think that paying a ticket entitles you to throw garbage around and behave like a VIP. I see that type of person on PIA and Arab airlines all the time. I think we should all think of our collective responsibility. Yes I pay tax but I also clean up after myself and I don’t mind helping cleaning up after others too, especially if they don’t know better. Maybe they’ll learn. I don’t think that my paying for anything means I don’t have to step up and contribute. I know it’s easy to complain and say “I pay for ticket so I am allow to do everything” in typical 3rd World thinking.Recommend

  • Kulwnt Singh

    Is it necessary to compare everything with India no one is claiming that Indian Airports are better.Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    People who constantly taunt Pakistan without giving any constructive criticism, I seriously wonder why they have not moved to purer places in this world. I understand places like Canada and Germany are out of your league, but surely you can consider moving to purer places like India and Bangladesh and also enjoy their clean airports while you’re at there. You know, that way, you will save your self the trouble of constantly bashing PakistanRecommend

  • Muhammed Waqar Younis

    okay, send me a ticket, I’ll fly right over ;)Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    and then beg for a ticket as well. Shame! Go and work hard, instead of taunting your country and maybe that will help you succeed in making the change you want.Recommend

  • aamir

    Yes No doubt its worst airport of the world i have worked here even for staff toilets are not availables.and condition of the only toilet in international briefing area is so worst if you people see it you start vomiting.Recommend