If you were one of the millions of Americans who travelled by plane over the Thanksgiving break – perhaps heading home for a family gathering – you may also be among the most disgruntled air travellers in the world. Fact is, US airports are lagging way behind other countries in the world rankings, losing out to their Asian counterparts, as well as some European hubs.
For the past three years Singapore’s elegant Changi Airport has claimed the top spot in consultancy group Skytrax’s list, which surveys 13 million passengers for their opinions. As well as being one of the world’s busiest, Changi is also one of its most appreciated, featuring zen-inspired butterfly, orchid and cactus gardens where travellers can relax before their flight. It’s not the only airport focused on exceeding passengers’ expectations. South Korea’s Incheon boasts an ice-skating rink and a golf-driving range, while Hong Kong and Tokyo also appear in the top five.
US is falling behind
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky is the US’s highest-ranked airport, trailing in at a disappointing 30th position, with only San Francisco and Atlanta joining them in the top 50. Last year, The Economist estimated that 67% of passengers flying out of America arrived at a better airport than that from which they departed, while Bloomberg launched an ‘Airport Frustration’ index to chart ‘the most irritating place to catch a plane’ in the US and Canada. So what’s gone wrong?
Even the most cursory glance at online blogs and features on the subject reveals general exasperation with US airports, ranging from over-crowded terminals to invasive and repetitive security checks. Connections from overseas are often cumbersome and time consuming. New York’s LaGuardia Airport is often singled out as the country’s top offender (currently holding pole position on the Bloomberg index with a resounding 91-point un-satisfaction rate). Its age may be a factor: LaGuardia was pressed into service in 1929 and is to be completely overhauled by 2021.
New York’s Newark and JFK airports are also the cause of much frustration – according to the index – with one in four flights at a NYC airport delayed, according to Global Gateway Alliance. But many of America’s other major airports come in for scathing criticism from passengers, including LAX, Atlanta – the busiest airport in the world – and Washington Dulles, which was built as a temporary facility 40 years ago and is showing its age.
Kevin Burke from the North American President of the Airports Council International (ACI) accepts that US airports have an image problem.
‘We are the leaders in aviation and have some of the safest airports in the world, but we’ve also got some of the oldest, which are expensive to maintain. The average US airport is 40 years old, and when our youngest hub airport, Denver, has just turned 20, you know infrastructure needs to be better,’ he says. ‘Development is predominately managed by cities, regions and local government, and there is a whole slew of restrictions on how projects can be financed.’
There have been some advances in recent years, particularly in fast-tracking passengers through security as part of a ‘pre-check’ programme but many problems relate to ageing infrastructure and inadequate transport links. More finance for improvements could be raised via an increase in the Passenger Facility Charge but the domestic airline industry is against a rise. In the meantime, air traffic will continue to rise, together with the inevitable complaints.