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.