In today’s post, we’ll explore what arriving and departing passengers can expect to see at Taipei’s gateway to the world.
Welcome to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.
Note: For the sake of brevity, I shall refer to Taoyuan International Airport (“TPE”) throughout this post using its three-letter IATA code. Terminal 1 will likewise be referred to in abbreviated fashion (“T1”).
The information and pictures presented here are drawn from my own experience of using TPE on 12/15 September 2019. Facilities, check-in procedures, flight schedules and other details may change at any time without prior notice.
Airport name : Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport
IATA code : TPE
ICAO code : RCTP
Major city served : Taipei, Taiwan
Year opened : 1979
Terminals : Two
Passenger traffic : 46,535,180 (2018)
Related links : Official Site / Wikipedia
Date of visits documented in this report : Thursday, 12 September 2019 (arr.) / Sunday, 15 September 2019 (dep.)
Taipei is served by two airports: TPE outside the city proper, and Songshan Airport (TSA) within its boundaries. TSA was Taipei’s sole international airport until 1979, when TPE opened; today the vast majority of overseas flights are routed through the latter.
THE ARRIVAL EXPERIENCE
T1 featured cutting-edge design when it opened in 1979, but by the 2000s it had become outdated and was bursting at the seams. In order to increase the building’s rated capacity without resorting to total demolition, a massive renovation programme (completed in 2013) expanded T1’s useable footprint by spreading its roof further to the northeast and southwest.
The project also refreshed T1’s interiors, although the impact appears to be quite limited in the two long concourses where the boarding gates are located. For example, we passed through an arrivals corridor that sported new panelling and gleaming metal trim – but also low ceilings and vinyl floor tiles. Some sections of the arrivals floor also seemed to have received little more than a fresh lick of paint, with the hopelessly obsolete 70s/80s-era architecture and fittings still apparent.
Fortunately, things changed for the better – by several orders of magnitude – once we emerged into the lofty interiors of T1’s core building.
Note the angled columns covered with slabs of polished green stone. Until the renovations, those columns were part of T1’s façade and marked the outer limits of its central structure. By erecting tent-like roof extensions from both long faces of the building, two large outdoor terraces were brought indoors and made part of T1’s sheltered passenger space.
Now for a better look. Until less than a decade ago, the area in which I was standing was out in the open air.
We had to pass through a checkpoint at one end of this long, soaring space. The focus seemed less on security (there were no metal detectors) and more on quarantine procedures, with posters announcing large fines for anyone caught bringing meat products into Taiwan. Whether this was a permanent feature or a temporary escalation due to the global outbreak of African swine fever, I can’t say – but I can say that they were very strict about inspecting anything of interest that popped up on the baggage scanners.
Then followed immigration: a long, slow slog through a long, slow queue. (Not surprising since it was the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival – a long weekend for several East Asian countries including China, Korea, and Taiwan itself.) The actual inspection was quick and easy.
Next came baggage reclaim (one level down), and then customs. A quick pause to exchange some cash, then out we went into the arrivals lobby.
The quarantine checkpoint and immigration desks are on the level above this space. That gives you an idea of how much the terminal’s footprint was expanded through the addition of the great white roof overhead.
There’s a good range of options for transport from here to downtown Taipei, or indeed to other parts of Taiwan. The choices are outlined on the official website’s dedicated transportation page. For our part, we pre-booked a private transfer (by car) in order to avoid the hassle of changing trains along the way.
Now for a slight digression. In many other airports, you’d go up one or more levels from arrivals if you wanted to reach the departures zone (or down when moving from departures to arrivals). Here at TPE T1, the arrival and departure lobbies are on the same level, albeit on opposite sides of the building. The two are linked by a long corridor that allows people to walk from one side to the other.
THE DEPARTURE EXPERIENCE
A few days later, we were back at TPE T1 for our homeward flight to MNL on 5J 313.
The departures hall was a virtual twin of the arrivals lobby on the other side – no surprise given the building’s symmetrical design.
Check-in options and counter arrangements will depend on your airline. Our flight was with budget carrier Cebu Pacific (5J), who operate all-economy flights and do not require separate lanes for premium-class passengers. They do offer special counters for those who have already checked in online, which we were prudent enough to do (given the expected long queues arising from the multi-country holiday weekend).
Here are a couple of wider shots of the check-in area, taken a few years ago during my last trip to Taipei.
Some airports – TPE included – require passengers to wait briefly near the counters after checking in, whilst their luggage undergoes security screening. I’ve grown accustomed to the practice through my regular holidays in Korea (where it’s standard procedure), but I did observe one feature that seemed unique to TPE…
…namely, a monitor fitted next to the last counter in each row, with live footage of bags hurtling into the scanner.
After seeing our luggage disappear into the gaping void (via the monitor), we didn’t hear any alarms or announcements or the sounds of SWAT teams breaking in through the windows – which meant that we were in the clear.
Outbound immigration was on the same level as inbound, requiring us to go up one level from the check-in hall. Afterwards, it was a simple matter of following the signs until we were in the neighbourhood of our assigned gate.
On the long walk from our plane to the terminal exit after arriving a few days earlier, we’d seen T1 develop from a warren of low-ceilinged passageways into an impressive, monumental transport hub. Now, we were experiencing the reverse as we journeyed from the lofty interiors of the departures hall to the cramped, outdated atmosphere of the boarding concourses. The renovations have left their mark, true enough – bit of new panelling here, bit of nice tilework there – but the overall effect was of superficial improvements laid on top of obsolete infrastructure.
The waiting areas were no better. I’m not certain if it’s true for all, but the boarding lounges I looked at were set on a lower level (on par with the aerobridges and the arrivals floor), and could only be accessed by way of stairs and lifts (no escalators). There’d been an attempt to liven things up by giving each gate a special theme, but the results were more tacky than tasteful.
Here’s an example of a large boarding lounge, attached to Gate B9.
I suppose the sick-green vinyl floors and drab brown columns might work in certain contexts … say, the waiting room of a hospital.
Let’s have a look at the boarding lounge next to our own flight’s assigned gate, B6.
Um. Yeah. Well.
Let’s just leave it at that.
The gate itself is fitted with separate doors and aerobridges for different travel classes. Of course, whether these are used as designed will depend on your airline and the aircraft assigned to your flight. In our case, everyone walked through the “First class / Business class” bridge – even though the flight was all-economy – because this led straight to our narrow-body plane’s forward door (the only one used for boarding).
Let’s get one thing straight: TPE is – all things considered – a far better gateway for Taipei than my home airport (MNL) is for Manila. Parallel runways offering greater capacity than MNL’s perpendicular runways, reliable public transportation links (both road-based and rail), better support infrastructure … the list goes on.
That said, the passenger experience at T1 doesn’t quite reach the bar set by TPE as a whole. The terminal’s newly refurbished public areas are certainly very impressive, but once airside, standards fall precipitously as the limitations of T1’s ageing infrastructure and outdated layout become more apparent. Spaces become constricted, ceilings drop lower, and some of the interior fittings (particularly near the boarding gates) look like relics from the ’80s. One hopes that the airside zone will be given an overhaul of the same impact and quality as that applied to the public area – but as things stand, the passenger experience offered by TPE T1 leaves much to be desired.