Charlotte Airport Chaos: New Law Lets Passengers Drink To Cope With Misery Of American Airlines Hub

Charlotte has some of the nation’s highest airfares. It’s a tradeoff – the city gets a lot more air service than it would support on its own. American Airlines operates a major connecting hub, and dominates the airport. With 68% of Charlotte passengers connecting, locals get a lot of non-stop options than their city would normally support – but little competition.

American likes the airport not just for its geography but also its costs. The place is cheap to operate at, but those low costs also align with a miserable passenger experience. The airport is a pit. And for me it’s also where connections go to die.

The airport wasn’t built for the volume of traffic it gets. The corridors are packed body to body with passengers. The American Airlines clubs aren’t much better, with the main one still in the old US Airways design despite a six month renovation (that didn’t fix poor kitchen conditions, either).

Typical CLT
byu/kentuckb inamericanairlines

This airport has some of the longest walks outside of Salt Lake City. Arrive on a regional jet on the E concourse and you can easily be looking at 15 minute walks to a connection, or longer when people movers are broken and they are frequently broken.

The physical infrastructure of the Charlotte airport simply cannot support its American Airlines hub operation. Yet solving would drive up costs – in a way that American Airlines would not abide. So, this:

What airport am I at?
byu/G1uc0s3 inamericanairlines

The airline sells 35 minute connections for those flights, too. It’s technically possible to make it from one flight to another even coming from a regional jet at E, where you first need to wait for your carry on bags to be delivered planeside (those Bombardier regional jets don’t have overhead bin space to fit a standard rollaboard). If you hoof it over you may arrive at your connection before doors close. But not always. It really depends on what runway you land on.

When it doesn’t involve those regional jets on the E concourse you’ll find 30 minute connections. To be clear: these are purchased voluntarily and someone like me knows what I am getting into by booking one. If your inbound aircraft gets caught in an alleyway, all bets are off. Or if your first flight has a short delay, your connection goes away.

Passengers, though, have new legal protections to allow them to endure the suffering of the Charlotte airport.

Three years ago American Airlines was trying to get the Charlotte airport to stamp out ‘to go’ alcohol sales.

Chief Operating Officer David Seymour shared the plan for what’s next: getting government to crack down on airport alcohol sales. He says that they’ve already gotten Dallas – Fort Worth airport to ban alcohol to go from restaurants. However they’ve been pushing on Charlotte to eliminate the practice, they’re “shutting down as much as they can,” but vendors there are resistant. That’s why they’ve engaged their government affairs team “trying to crack down.”

Now airport vendors have state law backing to sell alcohol to go:

You can drink while ‘walking around’ or, I suppose, while rocking in a rocking chair. And you’re then more likely to bring that booze on board and serve yourself.

During the pandemic this was a huge problem because American Airlines (and other airlines) stopped selling alcohol in coach so passengers pregamed and brought their own to drink on board, despite rules to the contrary. That problem has lessened with the return of alcohol sales. But selling alcohol for passengers to take with them often does not end well.

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. Isn’t this already the case in your home airport of AUS? Do you hate it as much there as well?

  2. CLT is the worst airport in the country, in my opinion. It’s an utter hell hole combined into a septic tank full of Taco Bell leftovers.

    That airport makes me want to drink the moment I step foot on the property, so much, I plan on partaking in some to go alcohol during my business trip there next week.

    Honorable mentions for other septic hell hole airports: DEN, MCO, MIA.

  3. I don’t know if this is still the case as I avoid CLT if at all possible. But they used to have restroom attendants, so you felt like you had to tip to dry your hands.

  4. Good article, Gary. When connecting at CLT, many American Airlines passengers enjoy consuming one or more refreshing alcoholic beverages while waiting at their departure gate for another delayed flight due to late crew, aircraft, or mechanical issues. Many elite passengers have learned they can avoid hangovers by staying drunk and maintaining their permabuzz until takeoff.

  5. We will not fly to or through Charlotte Full Stop
    Dunkin… is right with DEN being up there, too.

    Currently sitting at DCA gate with paperwork issues cutting into my lunch time in the Chelsie lounge
    Grumble Grumble AA
    Although for just 75,000 AA I’ll get to Sydney in First including Transcontinental

  6. Charlotte. Still hanging out with the UsAir garbage that slunk there from Pittsburgh. And not a single thing has improved in the 20 years since.

  7. @David S: Restroom attendants have been gone from CLT for years. People complained about the tipping… so they raised their pay to like $16 an hour and the airport even put up signs saying you aren’t expected to tip them as they don’t make tip wage. Of course individual restroom attendants kept taking those signs down or covering them. So the airport fired the lot of them.

  8. CLT is my home airport and I fly out of it at least 3-4 times a month. I hate it so much, but once you get your routine down it is slightly more tolerable.

    Park in the daily decks (if you make the reservation online you put in your license plate and it lets you in automatically) and walk through rental cars to get to the terminal (it’s faster than the shuttle). They now have an underground walkway from rentals as well if you want to avoid walking across the arrivals traffic.

    When going through security avoid the line that employees go through, TSA does not put extra staffing for them so it slows on that side.

    The Admiral’s Clubs there suck, regardless of the new or old one. They are too cramped and the food is horrible. They have been stuck on those stupid biscuits and gravy for months now. The renovation was even worse because it was all just package food.

    My carry on isn’t a roller so I can still take it on regional jets and I actually prefer regionals because everyone else is having to check theirs. You can get a carry on with the same storage as a roller now.

  9. The Charlotte airport is a disgrace….
    The two AA lounges are also a joke….overall, a third world experience. American Airlines needs to either explore significant airport upgrades (in conjunction with the City of Charlotte), or find a new SE US hub…

  10. I live in CLT and have no problem w the airport. Agree it is not a good connecting airport (outside of the fact you can walk quickly between gates unlike places like JFK, DEN or ATL.

    I lived in Dallas area for years and loved DFW as a home airport but also don’t like it for connections. Frankly I hate any connecting airport. The best are horrible at times. Wherever I have lived (Houston, Dallas, Nashville and Charlotte are last 4 stops) I pick an airline not on loyalty but on non-stop flights. Makes life a lot easier even if I had to fly a lot of SW out of BNA.

    As for Admirals Clubs yes they are bad but I go to the Centurion Lounge where I rarely have to wait and is much nicer in every way.

    BTW Gary the state law doesn’t mean the airport has to offer it or drinks can be consumed in the airport. The “to go” cocktails have to be sealed (like a growler). Of course to accurately state things would generate the clickbait and hysteria you so desperately desire!

  11. I understand why usair de-hubbed Pittsburgh. But they had a brand new airport built for connecting traffic. Best airport in the country to make connections

  12. Good article, Gary ! About the only thing that I would take issue with is your comment on 35 minute connections: “If you hoof it over you may arrive at your connection before doors close. But not always. It really depends on what runway you land on”. Per your recent article on AA’s AURA System, now it’s a guarantee that you’ll miss a 35 minute connection, as AURA will rebook you around 1/2 way through it. In sum, I’m not disagreed that CLT sucks, it’s just that AA’s AURA System makes it suck even worse.

  13. Just connected through CLT last week. Still crowded. All walkways were working. But had to reach the far end of the E concourse to connect. Took about 16 min.

  14. The question still remains – where is the Charlotte Fire Chief during all these pushes? Take a look at the “Typical CLT” photo. You see the ONE exit sign, “backwards”? You have old, young, disabled, confused, deaf, visually impaired, obese, healthy people that are going to die when the microwave at the bagel shop explodes and people smell smoke. Where are they going to go? The emergence exits? Find one. Out the jetways? Those will be locked, and the ones used for boarding will have passengers stacked two deep. People will be filling the concourses as people are trying to turn around and escape. It’s going to resemble a horizontal World Trade Center. They’ve been told, yet nothing changes.

  15. After a ridiculous connection in DFW where we made it, but bags of course didn’t, we were treated to about three hours in CLT baggage claim. The AA agents blamed us for booking tight connection and offered no help to forward the bags etc. Luckily for us, the shining star of CLT is the divey snack bar in baggage claim. We got a snack and a couple beers that we could take to seats and wait out AA incompetence since we were on the wrong side of security and other amenities. Once bags arrived, a whole new chapter of craziness standing for over an hour for the shuttle to our AA-provided hotel to stay overnight for missed connection…breathing in nothing but bus fumes and getting hung up on when trying to contact the hotel. Took Uber to different hotel we picked. AA and CLT are off my list.

  16. CLT is hometown for me for 20 years. This article is 100% spot on. Super expensive and an ever worsening awful customer experience. I am roughly a 1 time per month traveler on average, and I dread every interaction with the airport. After $4 billion and 10 years worth of upgrades it still sucks. It cannot handle the volume as you noted. The concourses are so small compared to virtually any other airport Itravel to. For personal family vacations, it is even worse. First as you also noted, the flights are super expensive due to AA’s virtual stanglehold on CLT. Second, those low costs you mentioned show up in the form of underpaid and overworked staff, resulting in general a lack of pride in a job well done. In 6 personal flights with family over the last 2 years, AA has delayed or misdirected our bags 3 times. You cant go on a 10 day cruise in the Med with just carry ons. The traffic flows are awful, the place is constantly overwhelmed, they lose your bags alot, and the flights are among the most expensive in the country – what’s not to love, right?!? The most disheartening thing though is I have no expectation whatsoever it will get any better. Flying through all these other airports just makes me sad for how much better CLT could be.

  17. I actually am willing, and have, paid more to avoid CLT like a bad tooth.

    1. The crappy regional bombardier that dont take roller boards.

    2. The way too short layovers

    3. One of the crappiest airports I’ve been in and I’ve been in plenty of 3rd world hellhole quonset hut types.

    Now you’d get to enjoy drunks walking around.

    Hard pass

  18. Just as a counterpoint I have had no issues and made all my connections in the last 15 years there and they are my closest hub. The American lounge is really bad though, the food was less than you would offer a couple of guys if they came over to your house to have a beer lol.

  19. I’m reading this waiting on a late flight in CLT in a boarding area with too few seats. Haven’t been here in 5 years and it’s worse than it used to be. Gosh I miss USAIR.

  20. I don’t understand why the Fire Marshall doesn’t shut that mess down. People would get trampled in an emergency.

  21. @ Gary — It is still my favorite connecting point from US SE to CA. Extra EQM when crediting to AS! I suppose PHL would make a good option too, but it typically costs more to connect there and is only marginally better than CLT.

  22. CLT is deplorable. Prior to the LGA renovations I used to say CLT was a combination of the worse of ORD and LGA. I will pay extra to avoid CLT due to the crowds and the deplorable conditions of the airport itself.

  23. I’m just here for the comments. I think Mia is the worst airport in the country.

  24. Connected many times through there and in the segment era used to do it on purpose. Never a problem. The small admirals club (new one) was bad but the old led one was fine. Of course, for the pretentious self important, I suppose basic comfort doesn’t meet expectations.

  25. Just missed a connection in CLT even though my flight arrived 30 minutes early. Waited for a gate for almost 1.5 hours because the outbound flight had a mechanical issue and then the pilot shared they have to find new crew. I live in RDU and the flight I was rebooked on ended up delayed multiple times and didn’t arrive until 10pm – 8 hours after the original flight. Afterbthe second delay, A few others and I just canceled and ubered to the train station for a peaceful ride back to Raleigh on the NC Train service. Still hours before the plane actually touched down at RDU.

  26. I’m sorry, I don’t understand the CLT hate. It’s not the best, but it’s certainly not LGA or the bastardized versions that have concourses where you have to take a bus (lax/dca?) I’ve had better, but far worse. Plus, I’m local so I get multiple stops a day just about everywhere.

  27. “Black says:
    July 9, 2024 at 1:41 pm
    I’m reading this waiting on a late flight in CLT in a boarding area with too few seats. Haven’t been here in 5 years and it’s worse than it used to be. Gosh I miss USAIR.”

    Dood, who da phuque do you think has been running AA for the last 12 years, +/-? Yes, US (HP, really).

    I just love to see all the negative connects on AA, when it’s really the old US / HP leadership that is driving this once great airline deep down into the dregs of today’s travel options.

    The crowds aren’t AAs fault. They’re just supplying a product where there is demand. It’s the reality of air travel in the US these days where the average load factor is over 90% capacity on a daily basis. This (CLT) Oh you just farted meis using a hub dating back to the old, original Piedmont Airlines days when the busiest travel days were less than 1/2 of the passengers that we see today. All of the major domestic hubs are saturated these days.

  28. @Gary – You throw a lot of shade at CLT. Some is justified but a lot is not. You make some vague allusions to what’s wrong but outside of distance between gates you don’t say what needs fixing. Why not simply clearly outline your gripes? I think CLT is pretty solid but I’m willing to alter my view if there are compelling facts to the contrary.

  29. All of these people whining about CLT obviously haven’t been to ORD or PHL. Those two have all of the charm of a Greyhound station.

  30. The MOST IMPORTANT comments made so far are about the threats to life from a potential fire evacuation or mass evacuation for another reason. There is no way it’s safe for this many people to be packed into such a compact, confined area with very few exits that are safe to flee. Run out onto the tarmac in CLT, good luck, you’ll get run over by a plane or vehicle! This needs to be addressed. It’s definitely way too overcrowded.

  31. Waiting for the Fire Marshall to reduce capacity. No way is safe to have this many people in standing room capacity, choked up in hallways. One fire away with a deadly stampede awaits us.

  32. CLT SUCKS! The great pyramid at Giza plateau was built quicker than the never ending renovation . Many contributors have alluded to US Air. Prior to that name it was Allegheny Air— otherwise known as “ Agony Air.” But I digress. I have not experienced such a facility since Nagpur, India in 1970. That is NOT a compliment. I will say, however, American Air does not move the bulkhead forward or aft to accommodate the proper ratio of poultry and freight forward to passengers aft.

  33. CLT reminds me of the game, Mouse Trap. It’s a hub and spoke design dumping everyone into the center which is total chaos. All the hallways are narrow, you can’t pass anyone on the moving sidewalk because they are narrow, and if you’ve ever had to navigate it with an older parent or toddler, it’s a special kind of hell. About the only redeeming factor is the Christmas tree they set up for the holidays!

    All said, ORD is also terrible and the new terminal is going to give some people a heart attack. It’s like watching a cardiology stress test as people struggle up the hill.

    And don’t get me started on PDX. They need to get over their carpet fettish. It’s gross.

  34. The B and C terminals are a joke. Narrow concourses with 1/2 the seating for those waiting to board. AA most profitable hub cuz they won’t spend any money. E gate is a joke. Map makes look like it’s a short walk to B,C, D but it’s not. Shitting airport that grew way too fast. Great connections but I hate it.

  35. CLT has a great location for local O&D with an abundance of direct flights. Other than that, CLT is becoming a monumental embarrassment.
    Planning, design and execution for lowest cost per passenger and lowest cost per plane movement may attract a hub operation for an AA but nets a mean and dismal experience for the traveling public.
    CLT had a once in a generation opportunity in a booming regional economy to make something great for travelers. Can’t do it on the cheap with half measures and 2nd quality effort.
    And it’s chronically filthy. At least maintain it.

  36. Because of operational issues AA, the airline, generates a lot of future business for AA, the organization.

  37. CLT is my home airport, and I use it on average twice a month.

    I’m with AC on this. While the admiral’s clubs indeed remain mediocre to poor, the airport itself has been fine, albeit busy. Centurion lounge is quite good.

    I would like to see any data supporting Gary’s claim that CLT flights are more expensive.

  38. The problem seems to be that the gate areas aren’t big enough for their passengers, which then spill out into the concourses. That’s most of whom I’m dodging in the concourses.

  39. I live in a small town (CRW) and try to avoid the CLT connections at all costs. I will take the 528am flight to DCA and endure a 2hr layover to avoid the crowding in CLT. And every connection I have in CLT is 30-50min…so no time to even take advantage of the Admirals Club..smdh. I will choose ORD over any airport any day, but that’s also because I prefer United.

  40. CLT needs to build underground terminal connections. Ideally CLT needs a new airport but this is beyond the scope of small NC minds

  41. People love to rag on airports. CLT is not nearly as confusing as many other airports because all the terminals are connected. Concourse B and C need to be wider to accommodate the volume of passengers.

  42. I had a change in CLT in May ,after a back problem my friend convinced me to take a wheelchair.
    It was worse than any of the pictures you showed. It was a pit stop of wheelchairs, not enough of people to get us to our gates. I counted over 15 chairs crowed together where most people already knew they were NOT going to make their connection. No fault of the staff who were taking two chairs at a time or TRYING to figure out who they could take that MIGHT make their flight. Kudos to the wheelchair attendants and staff trying to help, just not enough staff or space to park the chairs.
    Shame on management who subject their employees to a no win situation and enduring the customers and their frustrations..

  43. CLT is my home airport too. Outside is even worse than inside, so every trip (even personal ones) I take ride share to/from the airport. And if you are picking up guests, forget it. Tell them to take ride share too. 20 years ago, I could leave my house, park and be at the gate within about 40 minutes. No more. Thank you “progress” in my fair Queen City.

    In defense of fair old CLT, the problems are consistent with the problems everywhere it seems. My family took a vacation to Glacier this summer. Outbound through DFW and return through ORD. Both experiences were horrible with having to run, as a family, through terminals due to what felt like a windshield ground tour of all the runways from our plane after touching down. Only to be followed by sitting 10ft from the gate for 45 minutes while the airport sorted out the problem with jet bridge. On a recent work trip to OMA, same. Cramped seating, no tables where one can sit with a lap top and do work while waiting the 2+ hours for a delayed flight (my litmus test is what kind of seating is available other than for eating or drinking at bars). Last fall, took a personal trip to RSW. Holy mother… I live in the south and can take heat, but a jam packed RSW airport with antiquated A/C is even too much for me. I wanted to bust through a door and run onto the tarmac because it looked more peaceful outside. For years, I traveled to San Juan…same with the A/C.

    Let’s face it. Air travel is broken. Most barhrooms at airports make me long for the days of those CLT attendants. A $1 or $2 tip was worth it to me to have paper towels and not park my rollerboard in an overflowing urinal mess. Everywhere is like this. Sometimes you get lucky and you sail through. But the best advice is: balance expectations. Because it ain’t worth a stress induced meltdown. To go drinks are a nice touch too.

  44. “People movers are broken?” You mean “moving sidewalks” are broken? This is CLT, not IAD. There have never been “people movers” at CLT.

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