The Best Worst Airport in the US

Frequent and casual travelers have their favorite airports. The ones that are easy to navigate and usually not too crowded always make the list. And then there are those airports where you have to use all your willpower just to deplane. These sprawling terminals are usually inhabited by a staff whose goal in life is seemingly to make your trip through their turf as nightmarish as possible. Overstatement? Perhaps, unless you’ve just come through customs at Chicago O’Hare.

Yes, O’Hare is one of those airports on my “worst” list. It is difficult to navigate (unless you have a PhD in Geography or a very good hand-held GPS unit) and perpetually crowded. The customs and immigration folks there have given me the most hassle of any airport in the country. If it was just me, I’d guess that I fit some sort of profile. But everyone seems to have trouble. On my last trip, I witnessed a little Japanese grandmother being pulled out of the customs line after she couldn’t answer (or perhaps even understand) a customs agent’s eloquently posed question “How much Yen you got?”

At the same time, there are certain corners of O’Hare that I love.One is the bar in the corner of the international terminal. The bartender on my previous trip was not only generous with her pours, she knew the status of every flight coming into and out of the terminal seemingly aided by some sort of sixth sense that must come from a lifetime in airport bars. And her yarns about the airport life were almost enough to make you want to work there. I’ve always found this particular bar to be staffed by equally laid back and knowledgeable people.

At the nearby hot dog stand, they might serve you a hot dog with a dismissive frown, but as a last meal before heading off overseas, it can’t be beat. Hell, a trip to this little corner of the massive monstrosity that is O’Hare might even have you thinking fondly of the place. But don’t worry, there is always plenty of swearing businessmen ready to push you down if no one is looking, surly staff dishing out the attitude and cavity-searches to keep you in touch the reality.

I’m always happy to leave O’Hare. But that’s one of the points of travel, isn’t it? Being happy to leave where you are and looking forward to where you are going.

And the best large airport in the United States goes to…… Philadelphia?!

JD Power and Associates just came out with their 2008 North American Airport Satisfaction Index Survey with some wild results.

Based on over 10,000 people surveyed, airline passengers rated Philadelphia the best among large (over 30 million passengers per year) airports around the country. Also in the top? Las Vegas and Orlando.

The worst three? Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle – Tacoma.

Airports were rated on six factors: airport accessibility, baggage claim, check-in/baggage check process, terminal facilities, security check, and food/retail services.

Take this data with a huge grain of salt though — I dare say a rock. Even if you do have 10,000 data points, people can be wildly influenced and biased. Of course you’re going to be happy in Las Vegas. You’re gambling! Sure, people like Orlando. IT’S IN FLORIDA. Can you think of a reason why people would be unhappy and cranky in Minneapolis?

As an engineer, I would perhaps be more convinced if we had calibrated judges working on a larger scale, say 1 – 50 or 100.

But hey, small yellow balls and easily readable numbers make great fodder for overblown headlines, ridiculous accusations and political whining — and that’s what we as Americans are good at. We have only ourselves to blame for the noise in the data.

What I find most amusing about the report is how the media have jumped all over it. The Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal and USA Today both claim that MSP was the worst rated airport, but none of the high-school-level data that JD Power & Associates published conclusively indicate that. Seattle – Tacoma, for example, also got “two little yellow balls out of five” in all of their categories. Furthermore, neither depot actually links to the real data, readily available on the JDPA website. Why not? Because they don’t want you to do the thinking.

Here’s what I propose to those of you that are actually interested: if you really want to see how JD ranked the airports, take a look at the site yourself, soak in the data and stop listening to idiots like me. Think about the source and quality of the data and then if you’re convinced of their opinions in the end, you have my blessing.

For what it’s worth, I think the study shows a lot of good trends and is a good basic tool to analyze the nation’s airports. But don’t base your entire life’s thesis on what you read — consider this data guidance on your enlightened path to your favorite — and least favorite — airport in the States.

Read the USA Today article here
or the MSP Business Journal article here.

Sorry for yelling.

Smaller Airports a Traveler’s Pleasure?

My dad LOVES flying out of Stewart Airport in Newburgh, New York. Once he found out he could get out of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York without heading to Newark, JFK or La Guardia and the hassle that comes with mega airport travel, he heads to Stewart if he can find the connections.

This summer when I landed at the airport in Bellingham, Washington and found the Hertz car rental counter so close to baggage claim that I could pick up my bag and rent the car at the same time, I was hooked on the simpler life. I’m not alone. According to Gary Stoller’s article in USA Today, business folks often prefer smaller airports without all the amenities that the bigger ones do.

Convenience is the reason. There isn’t as much traffic to get to them, car rentals, as in Bellingham, are closer, gates aren’t miles apart to get to or for connections between flights and security lines are generally shorter.

Not all small airports are equal, however. Some lack in speed when it comes to uniting passenger with bags. Austin-Bergstrom airport in Texas is one of the culprits. This slower than molasses in January approach landed it on the bottom of the ratings. Texas generally does airports right, though. It has the highest ranked airport as well, plus a few high ranking others. William P. Hobby airport is number one. Dallas Love Field is number two. San Antonio International Airport is three and El Paso is number four. I found it interesting that Port Columbus International (in AP photo, Jay LePrete) is ranked number 17, only two higher than Austin-Bergstrom. If it’s not one of the best, I have to say, it’s not bad. As a helpful hint, Wendy’s has $1 meal options, but you have to go there before you go through security.

Large airports still have a large fan club in tact. If you miss a connection, it’s more likely you’ll get another flight fairly quickly. Plus, there’s more to do to pass the time in airports geared for keeping the masses entertained while they wait.

Stuck in an Airport: The Best Ones

When I flew back from Taiwan on my way to Albuquerque, N.M., I had a scheduled eight-hour (or more) layover in Minneapolis, Minn. The best part was the convenience of the rented luggage cart. Pick up was right where the bags came off the conveyor belt. Drop off was at the gate of my connecting flight. In between my landing and takeoff, I spent a good deal of the time sleeping with my feet propped up on my carry-ons piled on the cart. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

There are airports that crank it up a notch or two to create great layover spots. These are the places recently named as the best of the best for places to be stuck for a while in Forbes Traveler. Click on each link to find out what’s the reason. If you happen to be somewhere bored of waiting, take photos. That’s what nashsnazzy did. I like the black and white.