Airline CEO Versus President Biden: Quit Wasting Money Making Airports Beautiful

The starting gun for New York LaGuardia’s $10 billion modernization – without even bringing transit to the airport – was then-Vice President Joe Biden’s 2014 comments suggesting the close-in New York City facility was something out of a third world country.

The airport bears little resemblance to what it used to. It’s far more modern, but also with more walking from curb-to-gate. It’s not nearly as efficient for going places quickly which is the point of an airport.

Now President Biden is taking on U.S. airport modernization more broadly with comments this week.

Not a single solitary American airport, not one, ranks in the top 25 in the world. The United States of America, not one airport ranks in the top 25 in the world. What in the hell is the matter with us? It means commerce. It means income. It means security. And we don’t even rank in the top 25.

Billions of dollars in funding is flowing to airports as part of the President’s infrastructure spending law. But the CEO of Frontier Airlines says this gets it all wrong.

Biffle is right, but putting him in charge of airport infrastructure wouldn’t be a good idea either.

  • Prettier buildings can be pleasant, and contribute to a modern aesthetic. That can be good for branding. But any branding of the U.S. to non-residents happens largely by draconian entry requirements, Visa process, and Customs and Border Protection interaction at the airport – more than via high-end retail.

  • The purpose of an airport is to get somewhere efficiently. Infrastructure investment, when funded at least partly using private dollars (as in LaGuardia) tends to sell revenue streams from the terminal for up front construction dollars. So the terminal needs to maximize sales to passengers, which means taking them through longer walks to gates in order to maximize sales along the way. Retails sales is why some airports, like Chicago O’Hare and Dallas – Fort Worth, have removed moving walkways.

  • You can only sell these revenue streams once, so it matters how you spend the money. Biffle is right to see a tradeoff between beautifying airports and actual airport capacity.

  • Investment in capacity would mean gates (many of the most desirable airports are locked up by their primary airline tenants) but would also mean more runways and technological investment in air traffic control outside of the vagaries of annual appropriation cycles. What you prioritize for investment matters.

The Frontier Airlines approach minimizes cost at all costs. Frontier and Allegiant, for instance, are the only carriers serving the ‘South Terminal’ (basically two double wide trailers) in Austin. Even Spirit Airlines pays the fees for the main terminal.

Frontier Airlines is working with Denver airport to stop using jet bridges and start boarding and deplaning via stairs. Customers don’t like it, but Frontier’s model isn’t about customer experience it’s a bet that customers will accept it for low costs.

  • They don’t have to pay for jet bridges, or jet bridge maintenance (the motorized bridges break down).
  • In the limit it can be quicker to load and unload using two sets of stairs, bring passengers off the plane from the back and load from the front with whatever cleaning must be done happening in between.
  • It sometimes snows in Denver.

There needs to be a balance in airport investment, and the proper balance is found by remembering what an airport is for. When renovations increase the walking distance to gates, and increase security wait times, those aren’t desirable. When renovations increase the cost of using the airport so that tickets become less affordable at the margin – higher fees to airlines, pushing out ultra-low cost carriers who compete down fares of legacy carriers – that’s not desirable either.

At the same time basic upkeep is needed at a minimum, like putting money into the bathrooms of the DFW airport C concourse.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I agree. Make them more Sufficient especially when it comes to customs areas. A little airport that I live by has only been renovated like twice within the last seven years it’s ridiculous because now they’re down to just two airlines it’s crazy spend all that money.

  2. Our airports are not pretty, and neither is our infrastructure of mass transit. Neither are the downtowns of many major cities, especially in good weather (homeless). Our colleges and universities, except for the top ranked, are absolute jokes. Our undergrad math courses teach what kids overseas learn in high school. The majority of adults in America cannot tell you what is the cosine of zero. They cannot tell you what is d/dx e^x.

    America is only a great country for very niche reasons. The bottom 99% of Americans are losers and morons. I learned this in grade school when I’d score above 99 percent of students nationwide on standardized tests. Initially, I thought the percentiles were reported incorrectly. Then I grew older and realized yeah, so much of America is dumb as sh*t.

  3. Later in these comments you’re going to see a guy named David Miller and that will be proof positive of my assertions.

  4. @Gary, a small critique re: “going places quickly which is the point of an airport” – IMHO this is true, but it’s only part of the truth. As I see it, the point of an airport is going places *comfortably*, which includes going places quickly but encompasses more than that. I regularly take less efficient routes for more comfortable service and accommodations, and I think most frequent travelers (and even some infrequent travelers) would do the same, so this seems to be a revealed-preferences insight. So yes, the curb-to-gate time is a liability with the new LGA renovation, but at the same time I’m much happier flying into/out of LGA now than I was before. Comfort is a valuable commodity, particularly for road warriors who appreciate a respite from the grind.

  5. America’s airports, like its entire infrastructure, needs investment. Badly. From roads, to bridges, to air traffic control, to railways, the country has third world facilities, creaking and crumbling in most places. Improving the aesthetics of airports is part of it. LaGuardia for instance, gained some much needed taxiway efficiencies with the structural changes made, but yes, capacity and elasticity are also what’s needed, but America would rather fund foreign wars, put fools in outer space, and waste tax payer money on thousands of pork barrel projects over actually making its country better for its citizens and something to be proud of. Regrettably, the country remains mired in nasty, pointless culture wars, waged by “evangelical” christians (whatever that is) against women, blacks, homosexuals, and anyone who doesn’t conform to a 1950s view of what America and American life should be. Perhaps America could fund its needed infrastructure revival through a direct tax on religious organizations that play in the political arena. With that, the middle of the country could have a Dubai-style airport.

  6. I agree with Tony, for many of us comfort, service and accommodations are critical. This guy is only about the bottom dollar, nothing else. Most efficiencies went out the door when TSA came on the scene. Large wide terminals are needed from the old days of narrow terminals.

    Case in point, Charlotte. Trying to go from gate to gate in those very narrow gates areas is like being in a can of sardines. You can’t move without bumping into people and when you get to your gate there is no seats to be found.

    We need to modernize the airport infrastructure in order to handle the capacity of the current travel needs and beyond. That will cost money.

  7. Airports have lost their focus. I’ll use Charlotte Douglas as an example. Horrible parking situation and getting more and more expensive. Horrible restaurants in airport. Mostly fast food that taste like crap at high prices. Not enough lounge space. AA holds the vast majority of gate and prices are in top 8 in highest in nation. Renovation has been going on for years. I can guarantee you they’ll spend billions and it will still be a crap product.

    USA needs more bullet trains like in Europe. The bullet trains stations are fast, comfortable and efficient

  8. I think the view is that airports don’t need to be the Mall of America with high end designer stores, enormous fountains and soaring vaulted glass ceilings.

    Focus on adding more gates and break monopolies in certain areas by one airline to help consumer. Increase penalties for airlines for lost baggage and delays/cancellations. Hold all airlines to a minimum standard of customer service that is regulated

  9. @ Mets Fan In NC says

    The Democratic Temple that is California is working on a bullet train, has been for a decade. Stay turned for developments. Not long now.

  10. LaGuardia’s previous infrastructure paid for itself many times over. It had to be rebuild and updated.
    The cost of those new terminals will increase airline costs which will be passed along to consumers.
    If you asked passengers if they would pay $25 more for the privilege of using the new LGA compared to before, most would probably say “no” but that is probably what the cost will end up being amortized over the accounting life of the facility and the current number of passengers that pass through it.

    The best way to make LGA more economical is to remove the perimeter restrictions which would allow more large jets to fly to more destinations. The perimeter restriction artificially limits demand and forces up prices while keeping the same number of flights, but on much smaller aircraft on average. The same thing is true for DCA.

    Not only are you arrogant but you prove you are sensitive enough to recoil from having real facts presented to you.
    While you tout your greatness, I bring industry facts which you and others would just as soon pretend don’t exist.
    99% of the world can see right through you.

  11. Tim Dunn is so stupid he didn’t realize he is replying to a LEE Kebum. Hey is there a Lee Kebum here? Somebody check the rear I know I got a Lee Kebum!

    Ah, Americans. The ugly airports can be fixed with enough money. Can’t buy more IQ points for Tim Dunn. More like Tim Dunce.

  12. You have proved my point there, Kebum.

    Clue; In American English, if two names are given and there is no punctation between the two, the first name is considered the first name and the second is considered the last name.

    If you want to be called “Lee Kebum” then either write “Kebum, Lee” Or Lee Kebum”

    not just arrogant but also ignorant.

    If you were half smart, you’d walk away now. If you were even smarter than 1% of the American population, you would walk away now.

  13. Clue: in all English, a semicolon is not a colon.

    American English does in fact use multiple naming conventions. Does Jong-Un ring a bell? Probably not to your ignorant ass, because American media writes Kim Jong-Un (LASTNAME FIRSTNAME) in the same breath they write Angela Merkel (FIRSTNAME LASTNAME) in the same breath they write Mitt Romney (MIDDLENAME LASTNAME)

    Tim Dunce, you are repeatedly writing nonsense on a Saturday afternoon. Get a life!

  14. You once again have proven that you don’t understand the difference between American English and a transliterated or transcribed foreign name.

    And the topic is about American airports, not your need to assert your superiority including abou the use of the English language.

    Arrogant and ignorant is accurate about you.

    Is it some other time than Saturday afternoon for you? Or is ok for you to trash people on a Saturday afternoon but not accept it in return?

    Much improved is accurate about LGA.

    Also, please feel free to post IQ scores for the USA vs. whatever country you are from to show that Americans are dumb.
    We’ll all be waiting for you to reveal what country produced you.

  15. Thanks for debasing yourself and the quality of discourse on this blog Tim, you’ve done yourself proud I’m sure.

  16. @Gary , I think your definition of “going places quickly” is a bit limited. The problem with the old LaGuardia was that you could get where you were going quickly WITHIN the airport, but the cluster that was the ramp, alley, taxiway layout meant that you were less likely to actually GO QUICKLY to the place to where you had purchased a ticket.

    Going places quickly when traveling by air is much more importantly about flights operating on time, ramps and alleys not being crowded and jammed, which is a huge purpose of the terminal design and airfield re-design of LGA. If that means longer walks to and from the gate, I think it’s a good trade.

  17. Now children (tim & kebum). The last statement is that DFW terminal C needs to be remodeled. This was originally to take place with opening of terminal F. Do to continuing delays construction has yet to begin on terminal F.

  18. No one comes onto a site that I participate in and call 99% of Americans morons and losers.

    Gary needs to do a better job of keeping the North Korean trolls off this site.

    and American’s terminals as a whole are probably the most overstressed and outdated. When DFW Terminal C and CLT carry as much of AA’s revenue and is as far beyond, the issue is not the USA but AA’s priorities.

  19. Amusing that Mr Biffle thinks the US has beautiful airports. He clearly hasn’t flown anywhere significant.

  20. @TimDunn, you have no idea what you are talking about. Relaxing the perimeter rule at LGA simply isn’t going to happen without a major extension of LGA’s runways, or a unilateral decision to end flights to places like Cleveland, Toledo, Jacksonville, Hartford (yes, you Delta), to create the slots needed to enable such flights. Further, the runways are short, the airport is prone to delays, even with its beautiful new terminals, the core problem there hasn’t been fixed and that is a workable ATC system that can support JFK, LGA, and EWR without causing a meltdown each time there is weather. But sure, cram LGA with LAX, SFO, SEA, PDX, PHX, nonstops. Dozens of them. And see how that would all work out with the sliver of infrastructure that LGA is, even with its upgrades? The waste that is American infrastructure is right there for you to see. Billions on an airport but not solving the real crux of the issue.

  21. 99% of Americans are morons and losers. There you go Tim Dunce, you’ve been factually and definitively disproven. You said nobody comes to this site to say that. Well, I do.

    Korean IQs are much higher on average.

  22. @Robert
    B Biffle doesn’t even want an airport. A bus station is fine by him. As Gary mentioned, air stairs are enough. Who is giving this man a forum to spew this trash? Why would anyone contemplate the lowest common denominator as a useful or desirable trait or goal? What this guy wants is government money spent on something that will be of benefit solely to him and his pocketbook/airline. Will that benefit me? Here at DTW? The limited flights, limited options, limited destinations, less than limited IRROPs, hardly on the list of the typical flyer Probably not. But will his stock price rise and put some coin in his pocket? That’s his only goal. As usual.

  23. I prefer boarding via air stairs. It is more fun and dignified the being packed into a stuffy, windowless, boring, gerbil tube that airports call jet bridges.

    If the purpose of an airport is to get somewhere efficiently, then boarding using two sets of stairs or two jet bridges and deplaning the same way is unquestionably the way to go. It is much faster than one jet bridge and that method can also provide a better passenger experience. Economy passengers won’t be help up while FAs are providing service in premium cabins and those passengers are stowing their luggage.

    Boarding via dual stairs and multiple jet bridges is common in Asia where bus gates are used more often and modern airports have as many as three jet bridges to serve one gate (A380s with one for the upper deck and two for the lower deck). I’ve never seen boarding from the front door and disembarking from the back door at the same time as Gary suggests. That would cause all kinds of problems.

    Faster boarding and disembarking means faster turnaround times. Faster turnaround times mean an airport can handle more flights with the same number of gates. Simple.

  24. “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as an airport”. Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (…) and the architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs.
    They have sought to highlight the tiredness and crossness motif with brutal shapes and nerve jangling colours, to make effortless the business of separating the traveller from his or her luggage or loved ones, to confuse the traveller with arrows that appear to point at the windows, distant tie racks, or the current position of the Ursa Minor in the night sky, and wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds that it is functional, and conceal the location of the departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not”.”

  25. I wonder when the disabilities act will mandate jet bridges for all aircraft over a certain size.
    I have watched the “external lift” being used in SE Asia to board mobility impaired passengers. It is a time consuming process. Would the lower cost airlines re-examine the costs if there were two or three assisted boardings on every flight

  26. ladyolives,
    There are multiple transcon flights from DCA to the west coast – on 737-800s (not MAX8s), A321NEOs, and 757s. In addition, the A220 can easily fly transcon flights from a short runway.

    The 767-300ER can also fly transcon from LGA but Delta has said it is not returning widebody aircraft to LGA.

    The runways at DCA are only 150 feet longer than LGA and are not the limiting factor for transcon flights at LGA. The limitation is the Port Authority of NY and NJ. The result is dozens of flights up and down the east coast on RJs that would be operated on larger aircraft less frequently if there could be transcon flights from LGA.

    RJs take the same amount of airspace as mainline jets.

    The new terminals are more than capable of handling any fully loaded narrowbody operated by US carriers right now.

    The vast majority of Koreans are very nice but you are a national shame for whichever Korea you come from.

  27. Tim Dunn, I’d wager that Kebum Lee is the same person as David Miller, who is the same person as Jackson Waterson, who is the same person as a number of other pseudonyms on this site. Given the source, any criticism is meaningless. Ignore it. What the person wants is attention. Deny it.

  28. By pursuing cheapness, a country transitions from a first world to a third world one. When everything is cheap, you’re literally in a third world country.

    Americans drive big, expensive, cars, not cheap mousetraps. They buy large, expensive, houses, not cheap shoebox apartments. Why would it be different with airlines? Or airports?

    A life well lived requires buying good services and products, not the cheapest everything. That’s the American dream.

  29. @Kebum Lee

    You’re 100% spot on.
    Americans are subhumans I hope live long enough to see the day the USA is rubble and ash.

  30. olives,
    feel free to let me know what I don’t get.
    You posted about 3 reasons why LGA wouldn’t work for longhaul flights and I gave you 3 answers.
    There is very little difference physically between the space at LGA and DCA and DCA has a select number of longhaul/transcon flights.
    Flights cancel at JFK and EWR when weather goes bad.

    Tell me what is missing.

    The whole point of refurbishing LGA was to make it a truly first world experience; it is closer to being there than it has ever been.

    Why, other than if you are United at EWR, do you want to limit LGA’s ability to serve as much of the country as airlines can physically do?

  31. @Kebum,

    I still havent made it to the top 1% of Americans but with a $275k annual income as a software engineer and barely 7 figure net worth, am still as per your classication a moron and loser. Guess am at least a content loser!

  32. Pre covid we were booked on a flight Munich/Frankfurt/Vancouver. Some time prior to our departure date we were informed that due to a sked change we were rebooked Munich/Chicago/Vancouver.
    No way.
    We called LH and were able to rebook Munich/Frankfurt/Calgary/Vancouver. A bit more inconvenient but at least we didn’t have to go through Chicago.

  33. I have been guilty of thinking the US had horrible airports, but have recently changed my thinking a little bit. I mean, in all honesty, what’s so bad about them? The main thing I don’t like is that many of them are just looking a little run down — it’s purely an aesthetic thing. So yes, spending some money to make LGA look great is really nice. Remodeling bathrooms, great.

    But what else makes our airports any different from, say, Narita or Frankfurt or Sydney? I think we all have shopping, seating, free wifi, food outlets. What’s missing?

    For international arrivals, I’ve had extremely long waits in places like Narita, Johannesburg, Paris CDG, Istanbul. As an American, I breeze through Global Entry when I come home, although I realize that’s not the care for foreign visitors… they queue up just like I do when I travel to Europe and Asia. Are we really so different?

    People rave about Singapore Changi airport, and I like it, too. But why exactly do we like it? It looks nicer and has a beautiful fountain in the Jewel. But what else do they offer that actually improves the flying experience over what you find in other major airports?

  34. Changi –

    – I never have taken more than 5 minutes to clear security, because they do it at the gate for each flight. Ever.
    – trains connecting both airside and land side for terminals
    – face recognition kiosks so after you check in, no need to swipe your boarding pass anywhere any more
    – real trees growing inside the terminals
    – space! lots of wide open areas with no one around, both on landside and airside
    – automated kiosks for arrival for anyone who has their fingerprint already registered, even short term visitors. I, too have Global Entry, but immigration still takes longer into the US than Singapore, because I have to line up to give my kiosk form to an immigration officer.
    – Swimming pool, cactus garden, sunflower garden, butterfly garden, free movie theaters, etc.

    It makes a difference- I dread going to the airport in the States; Changi is a pleasure.

  35. @George — yes, Changi is quite pleasant and I agree it’s a nice place to be. But I generally don’t hang out at the airport for hours visiting butterfly gardens and such — who has time for that? I am usually working, so I want to arrive at the airport, maybe do some work from the airline lounge, and then get on my way. The features you mention at Changi are indeed great, and I’m glad they exist, but I don’t really use them. Maybe leisure travelers hang out at the airport for hours to enjoy these perks, but I’m not sure most serious travelers do.

  36. You don’t like trains between the terminals airside, so you don’t have to clear customs to transfer flights, even if they are in another terminal (except for the old budget terminal 4)?

    As a business traveller, I love security at the gate- I hate the TSA lines in North America- it took me 3 hours to clear security and immigration at Pearson in July…

    Also gotta love the mainly empty lounges, except for the Star Gold/basic SQ one…

  37. @Luke isn’t $275 pretty low for a software engineer with any experience? Kids make $150K straight out of school, no?

    As for US Airports, several are pretty great. DFW isn’t always beautiful, but it’s amazingly functional. IAH is very underrated. LAX is very improved as it leans in to outdoor space. The AS terminal at SFO is lovely. AUS and TPA are great. DEN is amazingly functional. The fact that ATL can move as many passengers as it does from T-F in 35 minutes is an engineering marvel.

    US airports will never be SIN or ICN, but they move passengers very efficiently. The airlines are to blame for the sorry passenger experience. Corrupt municipalities are to blame for poor transit options. The airports themselves are not the problem.

  38. Large airports just make it hard for elderly to walk to the gate. No-nonsense airports are fine. Airports like Omaha, Lubbock, and Greenville, SC are fine.

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