Why the President is Wrong About the Skytrax World Airport Awards and the Need for Infrastructure Spending

A week and a half ago I reflexively dismissed the Skytrax World Airport Awards being discussed in frequent flyer forums, because it was downright silly. I didn’t even blog about it at the time.

Only one airport in the top five is outside of Asia, and that’s Amsterdam’s Schiphol. The top five results are reasonable, Singapore and Seoul probably do have the best airports. But they’re major international connecting hubs and they are new facilities which didn’t face substantial red tape (compared to American counterparts) in their development. Beijing Capital was built in less time than an environmental impact study usually takes.

There’s plenty that’s screwy about the study, too. London’s Heathrow comes in at number 10. Surely respondents are just thinking about terminal 5 there. I recently flew British Airways Dusseldorf – London – San Francisco and had to take two buses and a train to make my connection, of course in addition to immigration and security. I was entirely on BA but my arrival was at a terminal 1 bus gate. No reasonable frequent flyer can include Heathrow in the top 10 of the world’s airports and believe the study offers reasonable guidance for anything. London City, Gatwick, and Stansted are all included in the top 50, to boot.

Cincinnati is apparently the best airport in the US, followed by Denver, San Francisco, and Atlanta. I much like San Francisco airport, except it is too prone to fog-related delays with parallel runways built too close together. As I’ll explain below, delays and physical infrastructure don’t really play a role in the rankings at all.

But the study has taken on much greater prominence now that President Obama is citing the poor performance of US airports in that survey as justification for greater infrastructure spending. I suspect that his aides either don’t understand what’s behind the Skytrax rankings, or figure that no one will bother to look as they make a political argument. Because the study doesn’t really support arguments for greater government infrastructure spending.

To be clear, that spending may or may not be worthwhile on the merits in any particular case. But the suggestion that Skytrax demonstrates the US is falling behind the rest of the world as a result of a failure of the federal government to invest is rather silly.

The U.S. doesn’t have better airports because most traffic is domestic, because there aren’t immigration exit controls and less time on average is spend airside in US terminals than abroad, and because in the U.S. regulations make it so hard to improve facilities in a meaningful way. San Francisco desperately needs runways that are further apart so that operations aren’t cut in half when fog rolls in off the Bay. But environmental rules and local community “NIMBY”-style lobbying efforts make that impossible. It’s a real problem for efficient operations — and yet it isn’t something that factors into the World Airport Awards’ criteria at all.

Instead, the study’s methodology pretty much suggests that improvements in everything but infrastructure spending would help goose the rankings of U.S. airports.

The survey focuses on:

  • Transportation to and from the airport and in particular public transportation pricing and taxi availability and pricing. Greater public transport spend in the US doesn’t tend to drive down fare prices. And taxis are tough to get in many jurisdictions, and more expensive than necessary, due to local grants of monopoly rights to taxi companies. In my home city, Washington Dulles airport only permits taxi pickups by a single company. That company makes twice the necessary trips as a result (they drop people off, don’t pick people up on return to the airport — meanwhile other cabs drop passengers off and are forced to return to the city empty as they cannot legally pick up new passengers at the airport — that’s wasteful, costly, and bad for the environment).
  • “Availability of luggage trolleys (airside & landside).” And childrens play rooms. Seriously.
  • Terminal comfort and “ambience and general design and appearance” which skews towards new airports, which tend to be built ground up in fast-developing economies. There’s no reason to level functional airports to make them modern architectural marvels, but if you’re starting from scratch your airport can score well.
  • Cleanliness, this will tier with new airports and airports in locations not overly dominated by union workforce.
  • Immigration and security wait times and staff attitude. US airports lose out because both our security theatre and our immigration is a mess, we subject foreigners to inconvenience and humiliation.
  • Signage, clarity of boarding calls and of flight information screens as well as the friendliness and language skills of airport staff.
  • Ease of transit. The U.S. will never score well here because transit from international to domestic (and even international-to-international) requires clearing immigration and customs as well as re-screening. Contrast with Singapore where you get off a flight and go straight to a lounge or to other airport facilities, and then have an efficient screening right at the gate of your next flight.
  • Location of Airline Lounges, shower facilities, cleanliness of bathrooms, tv and entertainment. Surely the President isn’t talking about building better airport VIP clubs, or cleaning toilets. Other amenities that matter for rankings are quiet areas, day rooms, hotel facilities at the airport, and rest areas. But since US airports tend not to be centers of international-to-international flight transit (because immigration rules make them highly unfriendly for this), they don’t have the same volume of passengers using on-airport hotels or making use of in-airport day rooms.
  • Choice of duty free outlets with reasonable pricing. As well as an airport’s food and drink options including ‘international’ options. And while the Rick Bayless place at O’Hare isn’t bad, the wine bar and even Cuban joint in Miami, U.S. security makes effectively operating a ‘good’ restaurant airside cost-prohibitive (some folks like Salt Lick barbecue but please don’t waste time trying the version they’re able to replicate at Dallas Fort Worth).
  • Free wifi, business centers, fax capabilities (paging Ben…), money changing of which there’s less of in the U.S. given the large land mass using the dollar and the predominance of domestic flights.
  • Smoking lounges, disabled access, baggage delivery times, efficiency of priority baggage delivery (how well airlines get bags to their elite passengers — is Obama suggesting the federal government should ramp up spending on this?)
  • Customer perception of airport security and safety standards. Security theatre hasn’t instilled high marks by travelers.

Nowhere in the criteria is there anything about runways, air traffic control, or delays.

The Economist beats the drum about infrastructure, but it too misses the point in equating US infrastructure spend with poor showing in the Skytrax rankings.

The mood in Washington right now is one of austerity, so any near-term improvements to the country’s airports will have to come from state or local authorities—or, ideally, from the private sector. But some of the worst problems can only be solved with federal help. Lengthy delays have a lot to do with America’s outdated air-traffic control system, which Washington is trying to fix, but which cannot be upgraded without lots of money. And the lack of good transport links at some of the most important airports (here’s looking at you, LaGuardia) is probably only rectifiable with federal money.

It also misses the point about how air traffic control is provided in many parts of the world (see: NavCanada) and how major airports in Canada, the UK, Australia and elsewhere have been privatized.

Ultimately there are good airports and bad airports in the US. Some need real improvements in their runways. Our controller-centric air traffic system needs modernization. But outside of jingoism and nationalist pride, I’m not sure what the Skytrax rankings matter. How Dallas Fort Worth or O’Hare does against Schiphol doesn’t much matter, since they’re not at all in the same business. The big Asian and European airports are international connecting hubs, while the major US airports have international service but are mainly domestic hubs. And since the U.S. requires visas (or visa-like visa waivers that have a fee) even for transit, US airlines and airports won’t be getting into competition with those airports any time soon.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that President Obama would be for more spending, sorry “investment”, during this time of draconian sequester. 😀

    Spending more money on airports for the benefit of the 1% can only mean taking more food from the mouths of poor babies, and throwing more underprivileged children out of HeadStart.

  2. Nice piece Gary. I agree with you about LHR, I try to avoid it whenever I can. BTW, just minor details about SFO – “when fog rolls in off the Bay” – technically, the fog actually coming in from the ocean over San Bruno Mountain and into the Bay. 🙂

  3. Hi Gary,

    I respectfully disagree. Yes, international hubs and domestic hubs cater to different clienteles, but the fundamental business is the same – to provide a comfortable place to wait for departing flights.

    Personally, I think you gloss over terminal comfort as a portion of infrastructure spending that can greatly improve an airport experience (i.e. Delta’s revamped Terminal D at LGA). I completely agree with you on the need to address the issue of taxi monopolies, and the US’ policy difficulty related to international transfers definitely doesn’t make the challenge any easier. But the creation of additional runways, aesthetic renovations, improvement of culinary options, and funding for air traffic control modernization would all serve to make our airports internationally competitive in a qualitative sense.

  4. Building things creates jobs. That’s pretty simple to understand even for conservatives whackjobs. A lot of people use airports. The benefit isn’t just for the 1%. As usual @robert Hansen is parroting ridiculous conservative propaganda.

  5. biggest issue with aviation here is the obsession with frequency :

    HKG handled 56M pax with only 2 runways.
    PEK managed 82M pax with only 3 runways

    DFW ? 7 runways for 58.6M.

    We need bigger planes at lower frequencies. Business pax won’t flee your airline if you offer “only” 11x daily instead of 16x, but you’ve managed to decrease congestion by 1/3rd.

  6. @Haldami Have your ever heard of sarcasm…?

    In case not, here’s an example:

    “Building things creates jobs” Yes, I know, that’s why the WPA ended the Great Depression.

    Besides which, I was actually parroting ridiculous Progressive propaganda….

    It cracks me up how, knowing I’m a conservative, when I sarcastically say the very sort of things Obama has recently been saying about the sequester, you label it “conservative propaganda”.

    Conservative: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”…. 😀

  7. @Matt – I agree about the need for runways, and too often local politics and heavy regulation stand in the way. But my point in this post is that runways (and delays) do not play any part in the methodology of the Skytrax study. So infrastructure spending on runways will not boost US performance in these rankings.

    The President today used this study as a wake up call for the need for infrastructure spending, but the study isn’t measuring that at all.

    Whether or not improvements would be helpful, it’s inappropriate to seize on this study and claim it means we aren’t investing enough in runways.

  8. Ah, every day, another right-wing talking point. Is Fox news faxing these to you every day now?

  9. So you’re saying it is OK that the US airports really are worse? Or that the scale is skewed? Or that the reason they are so bad means it is OK that they are so bad? I’m quite confused.

    I certainly agree with you that Heathrow is nothing to lust after and I actually think Schipol is mostly a dump, too. But that’s a far cry from saying that the airport infrastructure in the USA is sufficient, much less spectacular.

    And continuing to ignore investment in our infrastructure will, over time, lead to more significant economic issues. Yes, there is red tape, environmental impact studies and other issues. That’s not a good reason to simply give up and hope that the existing infrastructure will be sufficient over time. It barely is today and that will continue to decline. Pull your head out of the sand and look at the big picture. There is very much a reason for US airports to improve in quality. They sit on connection points between South America and Asia, just like European airports do. There are many other inter-regional connections they can facilitate and which they have to compete in.

    And they certainly are competing today; they are losing badly.

  10. “So you’re saying it is OK that the US airports really are worse? Or that the scale is skewed? Or that the reason they are so bad means it is OK that they are so bad? I’m quite confused.”

    Based on the below paragraph, it seems pretty clear what Gary’s point is. Not sure what you’re confused about:

    “To be clear, that spending may or may not be worthwhile on the merits in any particular case. But the suggestion that Skytrax demonstrates the US is falling behind the rest of the world as a result of a failure of the federal government to invest is rather silly.”

  11. @Wandering Aramean — I am saying that:

    1. The Skytrax methodology isn’t looking at what we traditionally think of as infrastructure like runways, the kinds of things that President was proposing based on how US airports fare in the rankings. That’s the key point. We could spend tons on infrastructure and not boost ourselves in the rankings which don’t take delays/throughput into account at all.

    2. The Skytrax rankings are biased towards new major international transit-to-international hubs. The US doesn’t have those, really, so won’t fare well in these rankings. Many US airports suck for lots of reasons, JFK is the pits and so is LAX and so is MIA. But for different reasons than the study thinks.

    3. You could do well in the study if you tore down existing airports and built new architecturally beautiful ones, though even that would require relaxing regulatory barriers and environmental barriers. And you’d also need to improve the security and customs process. Lots of problems with US airports that are external to the airports themselves but parts of other government functions.

    I totally agree that there’s needs for improved infrastructure that sadly are almost not possible in our political system. Take SFO where the runways are simply too close together. We don’t have the poltiical will to fix that.

    But I tried to suggest that this post wasn’t taking a position on specific infrastructure projects, or on infrastructure generally. I was just calling out that the Skytrax study was not a call to action on infrastructure spending, since it wasn’t really measuring that at all, US airports ranked badly in the study for reasons having nothing to do with infrastructure and more infrastructure spend wouldn’t boost US airports in the ranking given their methodology.

  12. @Zengo, when any politician trots out a study on airport quality to try to score points for their favored policies I am interested in taking a look at what the study actually does or does not show. And I am not a registered republican, sorry! But thanks for commenting. Incidentally left-wing blogger Matthew Yglesias took to Slate today to suggest US airports weren’t being properly measured in the study…

  13. Aren’t our USA airports relatively flush with cash due to their ability to tax passengers $4.50 per flight as a “Passenger Facility Charge”? Honestly, with very few exceptions (perhaps some experiences at JFK) I’ve never said to myself that our domestic airports are dumps. Yes, they’re often not as fancy as some foreign airports, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I doubt few of us would be thrilled with more Denvers, which has to be the USA’s best example of needlessly throwing cash at airport development. Flush with cash, airport authorities tend to build palaces, not practicality.

  14. @iahphx – in addition to JFK I think that the LAX Tom Bradley terminal qualifies as a dump. Parts of O’Hare and Midway. The security queueing at MIA. But then again, the biggest pains at MIA are also the ones that derive from recent investment … that long long walk to the train to the rental center for instance.

  15. @iahphx, yes they are! American airports are studied in the regulatory literature as the prime example of “gold plating”: since FAA rules do not allow money made from airports to be used anywhere else other than those airports (what do you expect they would be used to? reward shareholders? You capitalist pig!) and since virtually every airport is a public non-profit enterprise (which creates incentives to misuse capital), managers simply dump things in the most absurd things – they could dump money in the useful things, but those have the NIMBYism and red tape associated with them and take decades to materialize, so they rather spend that extra money in useless stuff.

  16. What needs to be built is better public transit to airports, more suburban airports are not the answer.
    Also, is it union work forces that lead to “dirty” airports or the fact that old, dirty airports are located in the union stronger Northern USA? I would rather a easy accessible by transit airport than one located far, far away and clean.

  17. Only a fraction of traffic at US airports is susceptible to competition to foreign airlines. Nobody is going to fly from any US destination to any other US destination through an Asian airport, thus US airports need not be as glamourous as foreign airports (not to mention that regardless of airline, you are probably going through a “dump” in the US).

    Regulations are absolutely overzealous, but the federal government should come in and invest billions to upgrade airports. If the local airports want to upgrade facilities, let them do it on their own.

  18. I am going to repeat myself, spend smarter not more. Tell me how much Public money you can pour in to DEN that is going to raise it much higher than it is now? The only thing I can think of is the Rail Station that is being built now on the south side. What can and will improve Denver is more spending by the tenants. Delta opening a skyclub, United renovating the United Clubs, offering flights to new destinations. Public money can only go so far and do so much, or are airports going to become the new stadiums? Build us this or we are going to move?? That will never work.

  19. I see a lot of people commenting on the need for the FAA and/or the Federal Government to spend money on airpots. Does everyone realize that almost all airports are owned (and built) by state or local governments? The only thing the FAA builds on an airport is the ATCT and NAVAIDS. Landing fees are collected by the local airport and used per the tax policies in that state/ city. The FAA gets its own fees which are deposited in the Treasury, not the FAA budget.It is entirely up to Congress how much money is given to the FAA.

  20. We have to make US airports competitive with foreign ones, so as not to fall behind. People in NYC and Miami, wanting to fly to Chicago and SF, are going to take high speed rail to Schiphol or Singapore, in order to fly out of state of the art airports. Oh, wait…..

  21. @Gary – why the JFK hate? I don’t understand the continual bashing on it – with DL re-doing their terminal, basically every terminal is new-ish inside or out (maybe T1’s a bit older at this point). I’m happy to fly JFK over EWR any day.

  22. @Glenn “almost all airports are owned (and built) by state or local governments” +1

    Of course, using reason and logic here will only get you vilified as a “dupe of FOX”…

  23. I thoroughly enjoyed the FTU but to get there I had to deplane at 8am at SFO to wait another hour for the sequester……then coming back I had to wait 1.5 hours at Dulles because SFO is doing “weekend construction”…….as a result of all the midnight travel I am now sick and I’ll spend less eating out at SF restaurants and the economy is going to go in the toilet as a result….It is important that we look at ways to improve the overall travel experience and the airports that will make us more competitive…….I know the lack of infrastructure spending has my wife and I thinking of retiring near an autobahn……..this group of bloggers has some very smart people…..we should all work together to make suggestions to make our airports better and make those cash registers sing and improve happiness for all!

  24. I would like to see some investment in the shameful mess that is passport control and immigration at some US airports… it’s the only country I have ever visited that regularly forces ordinary people to wait in lines for hours on end.

  25. The discussion here has been interesting. We all know that spending more money doesn’t necessarily result in a better airport experience for passengers (I mentioned DEN, and Gary rightfully highlighted some of the silly expenditures at MIA). But what the Military Frequent Flyer said might be the most interesting as it relates to Obama’s comments today. He noted that the FAA, and the Federal government in general, doesn’t really build airports — local and state governments do. Even if the President could (God forbid) get Congress to double spending on the FAA, it wouldn’t materially improve our nation’s airports. In other words, we’d still presumably get the exact same Skytrax scores that the President believes we can fix with more money. That ignorance does not reflect well on the President.

  26. I think the Prez is saying we need more international gateways here. 🙂 PHX has all of one nonstop intl flight out of NA.. BA to LHR with big YQ fees. Pretty lame for the ~5th biggest population in the US.

  27. >> The only thing the FAA builds on an airport
    >> is the ATCT and NAVAIDS.

    Those may be the only things that the Feds physically construct (directly contract for), but they most certainly FUND projects (and as a result have significant input) all over every airport’s property (e.g., Airport Improvement Program)

  28. “1. The Skytrax methodology isn’t looking at what we traditionally think of as infrastructure like runways, the kinds of things that President was proposing based on how US airports fare in the rankings.”

    Delays in the US aren’t primarily the result of runways. Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world and operates with two runways. JFK isn’t really limited by runways (they shut one down a couple of summers ago and no one noticed), neither is LAX, Chicago, Atlanta, DFW, or Denver. The only major airport that could be routinely sped up by more runways is SFO.

    Delays are almost always about ATC resources and maximum throughput of ATC corridors in bad weather, the primary response being NextGen, which you just recently advocated cutting funding for instead of current ATC operations.

    “2. The Skytrax rankings are biased towards new major international transit-to-international hubs.”

    By my reading of it, airports are judged whether they are clean, well maintained, well signed, and efficient. The fact that US airports fail so badly here are why customer service scores for US airports are abysmal and why people in the US hate to fly. US pax fly less RPM per person than most of Western Europe despite the fact that we are wealthier and live in a wider, more expansive, country.

    Overall, travel in the US is stressful, confusing, and unpleasant. Compare that experience to flying from places like MUC, AMS, CPH, SIN, HKG, Terminal 5 and one can easily see why people internationally prefer to spend their marginal dollar on air travel relative to other goods.

    “3. You could do well in the study if you tore down existing airports and built new architecturally beautiful ones, though even that would require relaxing regulatory barriers and environmental barriers. And you’d also need to improve the security and customs process. Lots of problems with US airports that are external to the airports themselves but parts of other government functions.”

    The fact that it would be hard to improve airport experiences I feel is largely a collective action problem rather than the fault of environmental issues. No one airline benefits from upgrades to a whole airport, so no airline is willing to take on the costs of doing so. Planners are risk-adverse and there is little money available from the feds simply to make flying a more pleasant, less stressful activity.

    When planners put their mind to it in the US, we can produce equally impressive airport experiences to SIN or HKG, such as Terminal 2 at SFO (where environmental/union/NIMBY concerns are, as you note, at their height), Terminal 5 at JFK, the new TBIT at LAX, and many quality midsized airports (PDX, MSP, etc.). This encourages passenger use of facilities by making flying more enjoyable and less stressful, which also generates economic activity via tourism and travel.

    The overall fact that there are many structural barriers to improving airport experiences doesn’t mean that some of those barriers can’t be overcome with appropriate infrastructure spending, particularly when government interests rates are near zero.

  29. Dulles is a national embarrassment.

    The front end (check in and baggage claim) is nice if a bit massive. It’s the poorly conceived train / bus mix for getting to the gates, the very ugly gate areas, and the lack of amenities that bother me. And the crowded customs area for international arrivals. Nothing insurmountable, just needs some TLC and vision. (The $1B+ train that makes you walk a long way to get on and off makes no sense to me: direct sliding walkways in a tunnel would have been a lot cheaper and faster to build.)

    Among other things, I don’t get why US airports can’t add spigots to water fountains for filling water bottles. Some European airports had that two years ago. Small expense, green. Cuts back on revenue from bottled water? I don’t really care.

    Power outlets. Ok, to my limited knowledge, Europe lacks adequate outlets in airports too.

    And why were most US airport restrooms all designed by architecture school dropouts, with criss-crossing traffic patterns and inadequate space for people, luggage, not to mention not enough urinals or stalls?

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