The best airports are the ones get are easiest to get to and get through. They make your travel more efficient, rather than adding to an already cumbersome and stressful experience. That has little to do with how much high-end retail there is (airports offer expensive shopping for their benefit, not for yours).
That means the best airports are close-in, and once you get there security is near the entrance and gates are near security. There’s enough taxiway space and runway capacity to handle flights, too, minimizing delays.
The Points Guy Airport Rankings
All over my Google News I’ve seen reports on rankings by the TPG website, from national stories covering overall results to local pieces on how their airport did. Each year The Points Guy staff put out a list of what they believe are the best and worst airports in the U.S. Rankings are very useful: Make a ranking, send out to media, get coverage.
The problem is that their rankings make little sense. San Diego is controversial as the best airport in the country, but I think it’s fun to argue about these things. Most of the rest of the list, though, seems to get airport rankings wrong relative to other airports on the list. That’s largely because of two factors, I think:
- Weighting the importance of factors wrong. They’ve increased the importance of an airport’s amenities this year, but is that what’s most important to travelers?
- Context matters. Honolulu flights are on time, but is that because of the airport itself or weather? They may like New York JFK amenities but they’re dispersed across terminals which aren’t connected.
What’s most important in an airport is going to have some subjectivity. I think I can make a pretty strong case for what the right factors are, but people can disagree. In a ranking like this it would be helpful to see the data behind the survey, and the percentage applied to each category.
Even better – and I hope they’ll consider this for future rankings – would be to offer either a widget or downloadable spreadsheet that lets readers adjust the importance of each factor and re-sort the list for themselves.
What’s Most Important in an Airport?
For local passengers the most important things are:
- How easy is it to get to and from the airport? That’s a function of both distance from city center and connectivity.
- Once there, how quickly can you get through security and to your gate?
- How congested is the airport facility? Does it have wide enough taxiways and enough runway capacity – in other words does it have the necessary throughput?
For connecting passengers, how quick and easy is it to transfer between gates? How efficiently can an airport handle connecting baggage? And of course throughput matters to connecting passengers too — perhaps even twice as much since they’re both arriving and departing by air.
Everything else, I think, is way down the list. The retail shopping experience is about raising revenue for the airport (and for airlines who may be sharing in that revenue). That’s why both DFW and Chicago O’Hare removed moving walkways — so that passengers would be less likely to skip by shopping.
Airport restaurants are mostly bad. Tortas Frontera at O’Hare is a notable exception. It’s important to be able to get food before a flight if you’ve rushed to the airport, and also quickly between flights – throughput for conveniently located restaurants is especially important at a banked hub.
To be sure there are things on my wish list for airports. Since I’m at the airport so frequently I’d love to be able to drop off and pick up dry cleaning (Austin’s valet parking offers this but I rarely drive and park), a drug store where I can fill prescriptions and pick up sundries, even a grocery to grab food to cook on the way home! It’s rather sad that Dallas Fort-Worth kicked out the airport barber shop.
Still, none of these things move the needle, at mot they’re tie breakers between airports that are:
- equally convenient to get to
- equally convenient to get through
- offer the same degree of through-put for planes and baggage, with needed facilities for efficient maintenance
And when ranking these things the facts on the ground make all the difference. Honolulu may be an incredibly on time airport, but is that because of the airport or because of the weather? I think each airport needs to be judged in the context of where it’s located.
What the TPG Airport Rankings Get Wrong
These rankings looked at the 50 busiest airports and came out with some perfectly reasonable results, and others that border on the absurd. For instance,
- Washington Dulles is the 19th best airport in the U.S., while the far-better Washington National is 29th. National airport is closer to the city, better connected to transportation, and — at least until ‘Project Journey’ is completed — security is close to the airport entrance, gates are close to security. It does everything you want an airport to do.
Meanwhile Dulles is an abomination. When metro to the airport is eventually completed, it will only drop you off near (not at) the airport. Taking the airport train to United gates and you’ll be dropped off nowhere near United gates. Instead the train stops where the airport once planned to eventually build a new concourse, but that’s nowhere in the near-term time horizon.
- Atlanta, their number four in the country, is one of the most corrupt and actively works to protect Delta from competition. That ought to be disqualifying. It’s also a sprawling complex making some connections time-consuming and cumbersome, and it’s some distance from the city in Atlanta traffic.
- Miami is the 12th best airport in the U.S., while Fort Lauderdale is third worst at 48? Almost anyone equidistant between the two in the region will prefer to fly out of Fort Lauderdale and avoid the mess that is Miami, with its crushing crowds, unhelpful staff, and erratic TSA. There are long walks inside of terminals, long walks to the train out to the rental car center, and insanely long walks to immigration. The lines for customs are absurd (though in fairness perhaps everyone coming into the airport is smuggling cocaine).
- LAX – which has much nicer facilities than it used to have – is a nightmare to get in and out of, both for arriving and departing passengers and for aircraft. Yet it’s listed a number 16.
- Filthadelphia is listed as 18th best.
- Dallas Love field at 37, Houston Hobby at 42, when I’d gladly fly out of either compared to their farther-out larger siblings which are ranked more highly.
- This list argues that New York JFK is better than Tampa, Minneapolis, DC, O’Hare, Denver, Boston, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, and Detroit – and 21 places better than closer-in New York LaGuardia. I’d choose any of the aforementioned airports over JFK any time.
New York JFK’s terminals aren’t well-connected, so an ‘additive approach’ to amenities there makes little sense. It suffers from New York airspace congestion and is difficult and time-consuming to get to.
- Delta’s former CEO Richard Anderson argued Detroit is the best airport in the world. Surely it has to be better than 47th in the U.S.
This comes down either to weighting the wrong things in the ranking, or weighting them inconsistently, it’s tough to know which without their making the data publicly accessible.
How Should You Rank the Best and Worst Airports?
Creators of the TPG airports list will argue that my priorities are off. They’d be wrong of course, but I think the only way to have this discussion is to start with basic principles and debate what an airport is supposed to do and then debate which airports do those things well.
My home town airport in Austin is great because it’s quick to get to and get through. The facility has become congested, though a 37.5% increase in gates that just opened helps.
San Diego, which TPG gives the nod to, is a choice worth discussing as best. Portland is a great airport. Phoenix is reasonably close to the city, though that’s probably all I can say in its favor.
If not for the intentional destruction of the Executive Terminal and closer of six other gates Dallas Love Field should be a contender, along with Washington National.
What are your choices for best and worst?