Like delayed flights, health problems are an inevitable part of travel. But what happens if you're stricken with toothache while waiting for your plane back to Kansas or Karachi? What kind of medical treatment can you expect at the airport?
Generally the good kind, says David Gamper, director of facilitation for the industry trade group Airports Council International. "Most hubs, especially where there are long layovers, have sophisticated medical centers," he says. This includes equipment such as X-ray machines, C.T. scanners and defibrillators, as well as the doctors and nurses to work them. New York City's JFK has a stand-alone clinic that offers vaccinations and general checkups. Tokyo's Narita Airport clinic even has beds. Changi Airport in Singapore has four clinics that can do everything from dental work to minor surgery.
Not all airports offer the same level of care, of course. "While we try to ensure constancy, in real life there are differences," says Dr. Claus Curdt-Christiansen, who heads the medical arm of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). That's because according to the ICAO's own regulations, signed by 188 countries, international airports are merely required to have a relationship with an external hospital and an ambulance on standby. Luckily, most airports offer more than this bare minimum even though air travelers tend to suffer fewer medical emergencies than the general population (according to a study at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, where, incidentally, gastrointestinal disorders were the No. 1 health problem for departing passengers).
Airport health policies are also about to improve. One reason airports tend not to have on-site hospitals is to prevent diseases from spreading among travelers, but the outbreak of SARS earlier this year underscored the need for tighter screening and more consistent facilities. By the end of next year, new though still unspecified ICAO regulations should be in place. In the meantime, if you're feeling out of sorts at an airport and the medical facilities are lacking, you could always head for that other place of succor the bar.