Do U.S. Airports Suck?

Filed Under: Media, Travel

As Ben/Lucky is shuttling back and forth between China (or as I call it, the spiritual homeland of the Montblanc pen — JUST KIDDING!), posts will be a bit lighter and I’ve volunteered to step in now and then with thoughts on aviation, points and miles from the amateur perspective.

The New York Times has a semi-provocative, though ultimately flimsy, piece today entitled “U.S. Airports Are Better, But Not Best.”

I could rip apart the article for being incredibly obvious. Most of us with even a passing knowledge of the airline industry know that airports like Singapore Changi, Hong Kong and Seoul Incheon blow away airports elsewhere.

I could also criticize the article for lacking any sort of coherent thesis.  Per the Times, American airports are inferior because:

  • They lack sleeping pods
  • The newer ones are too much like a shopping mall
  • We don’t invest as much in our infrastructure as much as foreign airport authorities do

To the first point, I doubt most domestic U.S. travelers care whether their connecting airports have sleeping pods. Call me naïve, but the U.S. isn’t so challengingly large that a domestic itinerary would require an overnight connection or an hours-long power nap in between flights. I see this as more of a concern for an international traveler connecting onto another international itinerary, and, as the Times mentions, Atlanta and Dallas, among other cities, have in-terminal private suites. I otherwise don’t tend to think of American airports as international through-hubs like Heathrow, Hong Kong, Frankfurt and Dubai are.

Sleeping pods at Abu Dhabi's airport, or, a claustrophobic's worst nightmare
Sleeping pods at Abu Dhabi’s airport, or, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare

Is anyone out there clamoring for luxury sleeping pods in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, or Boston Logan?  (And if so – can’t you just get a room at an airport hotel if you have a 10 hour layover? Would seem way nicer than a pod to me.)

To the second point, half the reason Changi, Incheon and Hong Kong are rated so highly is because they look and feel like a high-end mall.  People like to shop (and drink) when they have a long layover. Is this news?

Shopping concourse at Singapore Changi Airport
Shopping concourse at Singapore Changi Airport

The third point actually has merit. America is far behind its global neighbors in terms of investing in infrastructure like highways and high-speed rail. But, per the Times:

Since 2008, airports in the United States have committed $52 billion to capital improvement projects, many still underway. Globally, $385 billion worth of projects are in progress, led by China and the Middle East, according to estimates by CAPA Centre for Aviation, a research organization.

I’m not a math major, but if the U.S. accounts for $52 billion of the $385 billion worldwide spent on airport improvements, that’s about 14% of the total. Not impressive, but not half-bad, either.

Considering that countries like China or any of the UAE states can throw billions at a vanity project from government coffers without worrying about unions, zoning or environmental impact reports, I’d say we’re actually doing a good job of keeping up with the al-Joneses.

But more to the pointdo U.S. airports suck?

Our airports are much older than their Asian and Middle Eastern counterparts. LAX is horrendously designed from a macro perspective. So is JFK.  But LAX as we know it also opened in 1946 as the city grew up around it, and JFK opened in 1948. At the time, the concept of each carrier having its own terminal around a central ring roadway was cutting edge. Now, of course, we know it’s a pain in the ass.

Los Angeles International Airport in 1947 -- when it was cutting edge, believe it or not
Los Angeles International Airport in 1947 — when it was cutting edge, believe it or not

And our newer terminals, I think, are very competitive.  The newly-redesigned Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX is possibly the nicest airport terminal on the continent — and I think surpasses even Hong Kong Airport as far as interior amenities go.

Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX
Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX

I like Atlanta’s airport. DFW may be a slog from either of the cities it serves, but it’s an easy connecting hub and home to a world-class lounge. SFO is beautiful. Detroit and Minneapolis have gleaming, easy-to-use airports. Now that it has an inter-terminal train and will be getting a Metro connection soon, even Washington Dulles (at least Concourses A and B) is rather lovely.

I’d happily put any major American airport up against its European counterpart, most of which are liable to be as run-down, inconvenient and dank as the worst of them in the States.  (Berlin Tegel, which is allegedly to be replaced by a new airport at some point in the far-off future, is so bone-chillingly miserable that I would rather spend time in the basement of Port Authority instead.)

Berlin Tegel Airport, the Port Authority of the skies
Berlin Tegel Airport. Not pictured: baby Jesus weeping at what a craphole this place is.

And, news flash: endlessly wealthy authoritarian city-states with a desperate need to be perceived of as glitzy and no particular need to go through a permitting process can build spectacular airports! So if you like your gleaming airports with a side of human rights abuses, you’ll love Changi, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai.

What the New York Times seems to be suggesting is that, generally, U.S. airport authorities need to be spending a few billion more dollars to remain competitive in the global marketplace. And that’s a great point. But I think the direction American airports are already headed is promising.

What do you think? Can American airports ever be competitive with the best of the best? Do they need to be? And what improvements would you like to see in U.S. airports?

  1. While 14% of the global total seems like a pretty good number for infrastructure investment, it isn’t really what it seems. $1 billion in the UAE or Beijing builds a lot of airport when your labor is cheap (too cheap – labor practices in these countries is criminal), permitting and environmental processes are basically non-existent, and legal work is minimal. Compare that to the overpaid, slow union jobs in regulatory-heavy states like NY or CA and that same $1 billion might get you some drawings of what your project might one day look like.

  2. I’m convinced the whole article you cite is a thinly veiled reference/slap to LGA:) Even there the DAL terminal is pretty good.

  3. @Doug: I’m not sure which side you’re on — you’re (correctly) calling out the UAE and China for their slave-wage labor practices and lack of any sort of regulatory oversight, but you’re also (I think, rather flippantly) moaning that it’s more expensive to build in NY and California because of fair labor practices and regulatory review.

    And yet SFO is a phenomenal airport and LAX is on its way to getting there. The newer terminals at JFK are improvements and the connections to the city center are improving in all cases. Meanwhile, how are those airport-to-city rail connections over in the anti-union red states?

  4. IAD rail is at least a year behind schedule. It won’t be opening any time “soon”.

    I’m not sure I would lump Singapore in with the Middle Eastern states when it comes to worker abuses.

    But I do agree that Europe has its share of horrible airports with FRA and CDG (along with LHR) at the top of the list.

  5. Changi has open-air elevated patios as airside smoking areas. Meanwhile US airports make you go curbside or have horribly ventilated closets like in ATL or SLC. Meeting customer needs should be the priority and it’s this mindset that’s the real root of the problem.

  6. I agree with many of your points but not so sure our airports can go up against Europe’s best ones. Is any major airport in the U.S. as well-organized and pleasant as Munich? And Berlin-Tegel, while no MUC, is pretty amazing considering it was designed for a small fraction of its currency capacity (and built practically overnight). While its layout doesn’t leave much space for shopping/restaurants (or much of anything else) it’s incredibly efficient for getting on/off flights. No need to arrive more than 30 min before departure, and arriving there you can typically be in ground transportation (with checked bags in tow) within 10 minutes. Buses run every few minutes to the city center in about 20 min. Try any of that at any major airport in the U.S.

  7. @Stannis: I’m not sure encouraging smoking is, or should be, a priority among North American airports. I would put “smoking” really, really far down on the list of “customer needs” an airport should take into consideration.

  8. @02nz: Haven’t transited or flown to MUC, so can’t speak for it, but Tegel is really indefensible. Saying it’s “pretty amazing considering it was designed for a small fraction of its [current] capacity (and built practically overnight)” is like saying that Countess LuAnn DeLesseps'”Money Can’t Buy You Class” is “pretty amazing considering she has no talent or ability to sing, the lyrics are terrible and the production values are low.”

  9. Nick, thank you for posting this.

    My comment:
    1. You are correct in your observation, that not all US airport need to be designed with the same use in mind like the giant non-US hubs such as LHR, SIN, HKG etc. I used to live in Austin, flying out of AUS often, and I thought the terminal there is one of the best non-hub terminal in the country.

    2. I can speak for the state of the other big hubs in the US. My experience with big US airports are mixed. I think DFW is functional, but old. SFO is good, with easy transit connection and easy inter-terminal link. SEA is ok, but somewhat crowded, with good and airy central hub. I have not flown enough out of DTW or JFK to comment. I have yet had the pleasure to fly out of TBIT at LAX. I thought MSP is really good and really easy to navigate. IAH is mixed, the new Continental (or UA rather) is nice, but the rest is so-so. I like PDX, as long as you don’t have to fly out of the councourse on the ground level – I thought that portion was poorly planned and crowded.

    3. US airports also have the challenge of having to build within a tight confines. I flew out of SAN and I thought it’s just too cramped. On the other hand, I don’t see a way how can they expand since it is tightly hemmed in by urban areas. AUS on the other hand, is built outside the city confines, so the relevant authority can play around with the space.

    4. A lot of US airports also have legacy architecture if you will. DFW is easy to navigate but it feels cramped with the low ceiling and all. If the DFW authority wanted to make it as airy as PEK, they had to tear down the airport and build from the ground up.

    5. Personal opinion – I think what US airport need the most, especially the bigger ones, are good transit connections. SFO is a good example IMO. SEA now is good, since there is Link Rail to downtown. On vacation planning, transit connection makes things easier.

    6. For the bigger hubs, more ‘relaxation’ type areas is good. I’ve never thought twice when I have to have 10-12 hours layover at SIN, because I could just go to the lounge, to the transit hotel, or hang out in the airport. When I live in AUS, and wanting to travel overseas, I try avoiding long layovers at most US hub airports.

  10. I was into the article, and then I came across … “endlessly wealthy authoritarian city-states”. The easy counter points would be that the US is the sole military super-power in the world and one of the richest countries in the world. Were we not to spend budgets larger than MULTIPLE nations on “defense/offense” we *actually could* spend it on airports… or education… of the homeless… or healthcare.
    So while these city-states are in a “desperate need to be perceived of as glitzy”, the need to be so is part and parcel a piece of a(n enforced) globalized, colonial, “we are just as good as you”, mindset. How do you think their elite became elite in the first place? Who supports them financially and militarily? Who are “The Joneses” that they need to keep up with?
    It’s like my professor friend said: to the Colonizer (and their mentality), the colonized will never truly be seen as their equal. Even when the colonized emulate the colonizer.

  11. I think that U.S. airports suck, yes.

    Sure, some of them are really nice (I passed through SFO last year and it was pretty), but in most of them I feel like I’m in an old building in need for an overhaul. I really like the vast open spaces we see in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Doha, Singapore, or even Montreal or Toronto, something that I feel is lacking from the U.S. airports.

    But then again, U.S. airports don’t really need to compete with airports in Asia. I would say that SFO have to compete with LAX, or ORD with JFK because one might choose a connection based on which airport they go through.

    But do U.S. airports need to compete with those in Asia? No, because it doesn’t matter how the airport looks like. People will go to and from the U.S. anyways.

    People might choose to travel through the Middle East instead of Europe though because of the look of the airport. But for the U.S., I don’t think it matters that much.

    Don’t get me wrong, every time I step through LGA I rant for days after that about how U.S. airports suck and how I wish it would be renovated! But will it see more traffic if it gets nicer? I doubt it. People will just be happier.

  12. I meant to type:

    “2. I can’t speak for the state of the other big hubs in the US”

  13. “The spiritual homeland of the Montblanc pen.”

    I LOL’d so hard, then I LOL’d again.
    Nick you are way too funny.

  14. What do you mean by loving Changi if we love human rights abuses?!

    Changi is so darn efficient with friendly staff that care about your experience there. They even have small screens to ask you about your experience whether it be in line or using the restrooms.

    I’ll take a friendly Singaporean airport worker and better taken care of facilities over a U.S. Worker who is usually rude. U.S. bathrooms at all major airports are always dirty and smelly

  15. @ Nick: What exactly is so “indefensible” about Tegel? The fact it in’t a giant shopping mall with gates attached, a la DXB and BKK? Of course it’s overcrowded and over-capacity. And the mess at Berlin-Brandenburg International is a national disgrace for Germany. But that doesn’t change the fact that – for travelers who value the ability to get in and out efficiently, as opposed to spending hours at the airport in lounges and duty free – Berlin Tegel does the job as few airports of its size do, and I say that having flown well over a dozen times in and out, on both domestic and international flights.

  16. @02nz: You can get in and out of Tegel quickly, sure, but do you actually want to spend any time in there? We’re not rating airports based on access, we’re discussing what they’re like inside. And Tegel is falling apart. It is physically cramped and outdated, and it’s not a comfortable place to spend any amount of time. Your defense of TXL seems to be limited to how quickly you can board the plane from leaving the city center. You can do that at LaGuardia, too, but LaGuardia is still a $#!+hole.

  17. Biggest complain about US airports is that they are not connected to mass transit. ATL is only connected to the domestic terminal, you need to take a shuttle to the International.

  18. I just thought about the transit connection again. Case in point – Denver airport is actually nice, and it’s not limited by tight spaces and encroaching of urban areas … but boy, it’s a b***h to get there. It feels like I need to fly from Denver to get to the airport, regardless of what Denver neighborhood that I stay at.

  19. @ Nick – Have also been to LaGuardia more times than I care to count, and Tegel is a far better airport judging by both comfort and efficiency. Neither is the Ritz-Carlton, but if that’s what you’re looking for then maybe you should head to the Ritz-Carlton. Airports, on the other hand, are functional places that are subject to far more limitations in how the space is laid out and used. Tegel is far from ideal but it’s even farther from among the worst airports in Europe, much less the world.

  20. @Nic: But you can take a train from domestic to international at ATL, yes?

    Also, a (partial) list of US airports connected directly to their city centers by mass transit:
    SFO and OAK (BART to AirTrain)
    JFK (Subway to AirTrain)
    DFW (DART)
    CLE (Cleveland Rapid Transit)
    DCA (Washington Metro)
    MSP (Metro Blue Line)
    SLC (Trax)
    SEA (SoundTransit)
    STL (MetroLink)
    PDX (MAX)
    ORD and MDW (Chicago ‘L’)
    BWI to Baltimore (MTA Light Rail directly to terminal)

    Seems like a fair number of airports to me. There are plenty of airports in Europe without mass transit connection, either (BCN, MAD, FCO, TXL, off the top of my head).

  21. “but do you actually want to spend any time in there?” Call me crazy but I doubt very many people WANT to spend any amount of their lives at any airport, even nice airports like Munich, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But they have to in order to get around. And for almost all of them, I suspect the more efficiently they can get in and out the better.

  22. I agree that Munich airport operates more efficiently than any airport in the US. 30 minutes is enough to connect there. It’s not a large airport though (compared to Frankfurt or LHR or CDG)
    Yes I know Tegel is uncomplicated and quick, and not far from the city, but it is not connected to the subway, and once you’re there, there’s NOTHING to do! I think that’s the point Nick is making.
    The construction of the new airport Berlin-Brandenburg (and the corruption and incompetence surrounding it) is so shameful. As a German myself I’m embarrassed. It was supposed to open in 2010, and it’ll likely be 2018 by the time it’s done, at triple the originally projected cost. It’s been mostly “finished for several years, but was built so poorly that it had to be largely redone.

  23. People really don’t understand how limited Singaporeans are in their human rights. Do a bit of research into their citizens limitations and working conditions before commenting about how wonderful Changi is. Being described as ‘partly free’ and ranking 150th out of 175 is terrible.

    Those who criticise UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia should also include Singapore. Descrimination towards sexuality, treatment of migrant workers and suppression of free speech are rampant in Singapore.

  24. @ augias – I understand what Nick is saying. I just have a very different perspective – if an airport is efficient for its purpose (departing and arriving on flights), I don’t need a giant shopping mall/spa/adventure park/skating rink/ski slope to entertain me. I get there half an hour before the flight, go through security, and take off. I arrive, pick up my bags and off I go in 10 minutes. And move on to what I’m actually traveling to do and see, which – shock! – isn’t the airport.

  25. If I were a NYT writer and flew out of the dump that is La Guardia with any frequency, I’d be down on US airports, too. It feels quite cramped, has bad/no connections between secure areas, is literally rat infested, and they even have to bring in portable A/C units in the summer because the building’s can’t handle it. And this is the airport Wall Street bankers prefer? I don’t get it.

    Most U.S. airports are much better than LGA though. But the ones I go frequently, at least, have a different problem: terrible transit. Especially IAH, my home airport. A city bus from downtown takes over 2 hours and makes over 100 stops to get there. That’s just sad.

    (An aside to the guy who said Montreal’s airport has “vast open spaces” and *contrasted* it to an “old building in need of an overhaul” : am I trapped in the Opposite Dimension? Is there a “Montreal, Iowa” with a beautiful airport that I don’t know about? Perhaps you are writing from the perspective of the Mole People? Did you mean Mirabel maybe? The YUL that I fly through a couple times a year is a weeping accidental agglomeration of regret, decrepitude, and civic shame. I recommend trying a Canada-to-USA connection there if you need an illustration of why.)

    But after all that, I do still think, on average, U.S. airports have a reasonably decent hard product, especially given that most have been through multiple original-plan-confounding expansion and renovation cycles by now. I’ve been in at least as many dodgily designed facilities internationally as domestically.

  26. @ augias – I realize MUC is smaller than FRA and LHR, but they’re all big – we’re not talking about the difference between ATL and STL (LHR had 73 million passengers in 2014, FRA about 60 million and MUC about 40 million). But MUC is like an order of magnitude more pleasant and less chaotic than LHR, and significantly better than FRA (which gets a bad rap but still light-years better than LHR or CDG). Forgot to mention earlier but AMS would get my vote (along with MUC) as among the most pleasant major airports in Europe.

  27. @Sid: thanks for saying that about YUL. I’ve only flown in/out once a few years back, but I definitely recall it being somewhat of a pit. Anyone who claims that’s airier than ORD, SFO, IAD, SLC… is smoking Quebecois crack.

  28. BCN and FCO do not have subway/metro/light rail connections, but they both do have easy to navigate rail connections which can bring you directly into those cities.

    My new favorite airport in Europe is OPO. Great Metro connection, large airport, well designed, beautiful architecture.

    LAX, IAH (and HOU) are the biggest airports in the US I can think of with no rail transit connections whatsoever.

  29. In terms of getting to point A to Gate B21, I think that they serve their purpose…some more poorly than others. We’re a capitalist society that values money and making money above all else so of course they’re going to invest billions of dollars into turning our airports into overpriced shopping malls. That’s what the US is about – spending more money than you should. The worst airport I’ve ever been to was in Europe though. Charles de Gaulle gives me nightmares.

  30. @02nz: I’ll only say this one more time, and I definitely appreciate your point that TXL is easy to get in/out of. The New York Times article, and this post, is about airport amenities specifically (even if you want to minimize your time at the airport, plenty of people like to get to the airport early, or have time to spend at the airport due to unexpected delays, or connections). And you readily admit TXL has none. If and when I write a post about airports that are easy to get in/out of, you should definitely bring up TXL then. In the meantime, go back to the source article and understand we’re talking about the experience IN the airport.

  31. Here’s my recent assessments of US airports vis a vis the rest of the world : SFO terminal 3 new wing is in a class of its own (SFO in general is great). the New York area airports are junk. Washington (only transited) has one of the worst immigration lines I’ve ever been in. LAX isn’t as bad as people think. Even with terminal 2, Heathrow wins the award for most dysfunctional airport. FRA (with the exception of the 50/50 bus gate chances is tolerable. CDG loses luggage, Tegel is also very disorganized, though a German I sat next too going from Frankfurt to Berlin said Brandenburg would be open within a year and a half. The scandinavian airports are quite well done, though not for everyone. Changi will always win over everybody. BKK is OK, The two Vietnamese airports (Noi Bai and Tanh Son Nhut) will be torn down or renovated due to their state.

  32. We flew through JFK on our last European trip, and the international arrivals are horrible! Old, dark, dirty, musty, humid, like being booked in a prison. Compare that to international arrivals at just about any European airport (I’m not familiar with those in Asia). Plus, JFK has signs all over suggesting that foreigners are dangerous and trying to kill us through disease (I lost count of the number of signs warning about measles, ebola, flu, etc.). It’s depressing to arrive “home” to that, and a sad way to welcome people to our country.

  33. @Matt: Never been to Porto. Correct me if I’m wrong – OPO is strictly an origin & destination airport, right?

    LAX doesn’t have a direct rail connection, but there is an Aviation stop on the Green Line that connects to a shuttle bus, and plans for a more direct connection soon. I believe BOS has a similar setup.

    DEN (for the time being) has no connection at all and won’t until 2016. CLT and LAS are without connections, too.

  34. Nick, no thanks for the gratuitous condescension. Yes I did read the NY Times article. All I’m saying is there’s more to an airport than – look here, “a mall with Gucci and other luxury shops and this Thai restaurant with an elephant statue” (and yes that’s a quote from the Times article, and yes that’s about one of my favorites airports, Munich!).

  35. @Sid & @Nick: When were your most recent trips to YUL? While the domestic area could be improved, I think that the transborder (US) and International areas are quite nice. They’ve been improved in the past years.

    Am I really the only one thinking that today’s YUL is quite nice? I admit that I might be biased when I fly out of YUL and land in LGA… 😉

  36. @Marc: Admittedly haven’t flown to/from YUL since 2007. Has it gotten dramatically nicer? (I also don’t recall any sort of rail connection there, for what it’s worth.)

  37. And by the way, unless I’m dyslexic your post isn’t entitled “How many malls do U.S. airports have and how nice are they?” but rather “do U.S. airports suck?” And so excuse me if I was so presumptuous as to take a broad view when assessing how good airports are, that includes not only the number of shopping malls/fountains/elephants inside but also considering the things that people use airports for … to get to (and come back from) places! What an idea!

  38. And now I see your biography is “infrequent but savvy traveler.” At least that first part is clear.

  39. Am I allowed to post links? Here’s a picture from

    About the rail connection, you’re perfectly right. We have a bus, the “747” which is essentially a public bus that costs a little more than a regular public bus and goes straight downtown. But using the same busy highways as everyone.

    Apparently when they revamped the terminals they built a rail station under them, but there’s no budget to connect it to the existing railroads…

    A direct rail link would be awesome. But I doubt we’ll see that soon.

  40. @Marc: that photo doesn’t look awful, but does scream “generic North American airport” to me.

  41. @Nick: Definitely not the BKK, HKG or SIN we love, I agree! But I think it doesn’t feel as cramped as a lot of U.S. airports!

  42. I say it suck suck suck suck suck suck suck suck suck suck suck suck suck to be stuck at a U.S. Airport.
    Although some airports are improving.
    My biggest complaint is WiFi should be free and there are should be power plugs everywhere.(Kudos to Lakland airport)
    Airport food in U.S. are barely edible.

  43. Sigh. Whether or not people should smoke is besides the point. Many do, and pretending they don’t is ignoring reality. Unlike the rest of life, the airport is one of the places where they can’t easily ‘take it outside’.

    The larger point is that airports should strive to accommodate the public as much as possible, because most of us are not there out of choice, we have to be there or we can’t travel to where we’re going.

  44. This post borders on being racist. It basically says: oh look at those terrible authoritarian poor city states teeming with poverty, crime and human rights abuses! All they have is a nice airport.

    I expected better from people who claim to be well travelled.

  45. @Kevin: Huh!? I didn’t mention poverty or crime (in fact, I specifically pointed out how wealthy the city-states are). My point was when you’re a small city-state with a central government, lots of money at your disposal and little to no regard for workers’ rights or environmental regulations, you can build the sort of grandiose, over-the-top public works projects that North America can’t.

  46. The U.S. Airports lag waayyyyyyyy behind on linking to reliable and affordable public transportation. Glad to see IAD and DEN will have connectivity….20 years and many millions of dollars after the airports were built. KIX and HKG were built around the same time as DEN and they were smart enough to think about providing transportation at the same time as airport construction. It is really pretty sad how hard it is to get to many large American airports on public transit….

  47. Nick, I like when you post because you bring a different perspective to the blog. I love the number of responses your post has gotten, and isn’t that one of the points of the blog? Anyway, I agree with some of your points. I would like to add that part of the problem in the US is the way we fund infrastructure. But personally, I don’t see the method as that much of a problem. One of the characteristics of our federal system of government is our confusing way of funding infrastructure between federal, state, county, local, etc. Also, I think you can add MIA to that list of major airports with mass transit connections.

  48. Really? Really? Did you really just compare human rights violations with Singapore Changi? Singapore is like light years ahead of other countries in term of life standards. I used to like reading this blog but now its just American Nick trying to offend just about every other country and its getting really annoying. You think you and your country are the best and try to find shit arguments to prove it. You think investing billions of dollars will improve US airport? No, cuz Americans are too lazy!!! US AIRPORTS SUCK!

  49. @A: I know, and sometimes you post as “Jim,” and sometimes you post as “Ariel,” but you’re always a reliable troll!

  50. That’s not very nice Nick I don’t think im a troll there are just problems with what your writing

  51. @A: Singapore has a terrible human rights record. That’s a fact. That’s not “racist” to say. China has a vile human rights record, as well.

    If you disagree with those unassailable comments, I’ll consider you either a troll, or someone who has drank too much of the (green tea flavored) Kool-Aid.

  52. Also, I think it’s funny that the website that you gave me to view doesn’t even mention the US- despite its clear violation of rights against African Americans. I mean come on, that website says CANADA has human rights violations and the US doesnt????

  53. @A; regarding lazy Americans….Happy VE Day. I think 70 years ago, the lazy Americans were still in the process of liberating Singapore from that decidedly industrious non lazy occupation force…..

  54. Wow, as someone whose home airport is SFO, I’m a little surprised to see all the love for SFO on here. Terminal 1 is worse than Berlin Tegel; T2 (AA/VX) is new and shiny and pretty, but pretty small; and T3 (UA) is generally pretty old and cramped, with the exception of the old AA concourse that UA just took over and renovated. And it’s not very easy to get between terminals other than taking tram, but you have to exit security to do so.

    My other thought is that the big European connecting airports like LHR, CDG, and AMS have gone way too far with the shopping. I just got back from a trip where I had to connect in all 3 and it’s amazing how far you have to walk to get between gates. I think I passed several Gucci stores just to get between 2 gates in T5 recently at Heathrow.

    I hope US airports stick to a little bit of shopping, plenty of a great food to choose from, but most of all, gates for airplanes! I think the Euro airports have neglected that last one, unfortunately.

  55. @Scott: Well, the International Terminal at SFO is gorgeous, too. (I remember the days when VX used to fly out of there… what a treat!)

    My experience with South American airports is you’re forced to transit THROUGH an enormous duty free hall whether you’re departing or arriving – at EZE, at AEP, at MVD and at PDP. That was truly something on another level of in-your-face commercialism.

  56. Just having free wifi and good affordable food options I think would make 99% of domestic travelers happy

  57. I would just say that I think DCA is the most convenient airport in the US relative to the city center. It is handful of metro stops (or a ten minute door to door cab ride) from various business and residential districts. It also has been getting more crowded lately because of airline mergers and congressmen who like to fiddle with the special slot and flight rules placed on DCA so they don’t have to transfer when flying back home. Anyway, they say Tegel is easy-in, easy-out, so is DCA. But then again if you want international, IAD is about 30 miles and lots of traffic away – until they finish the silver line I guess.

  58. Compared to other countries, yes, US airports really suck. We absolutely need free wifi and also healthy food options.

  59. Well, there’s one problem with US airports that isn’t 100% the fault of the airports themselves, but hurts them anyway: how awful the international to domestic transit situation is. If you’re going to spend 2-3 hours waiting in line at immigration/customs at any airport (which can happen at major points of entry like SFO, LAX, JFK), you’re not going to be particularly fond of that airport, no matter how shiny it is.

  60. @Marc I was too hyperbolic, but I think there’s still some truth there. Domestic is just old and tired and very cramped. The international part is average with recent renovation. Still extremely far from “vast spaces” by world airport standards, though, especially relative to the stature of the city it’s in—YUL INTL feels like a nice airport for a regional midsize non-hub city, not the “national capitol” of Quebec 🙂 But the overall airport layout is obviously jammed together from parts intended for different purposes. The authorities even knew it and built an entire other (failed) airport to be the modern, international hub (back when Montreal was still a top priority for Air Canada, before the center shifted fully to Pearson and secondarily Vancouver).

    The worst of Dorval, though, is the drywall tunnel, hidden behind a structural steel I-beam pole and some caution tape, leading from Canadian airside to US preclearance. It’s long and narrow poorly lit and usually has janitorial equipment parked in it. Anywhere else, it would be an obvious temporary construction thing, but at YUL it’s a permanent design anti-feature.

    Still, I connect willingly at YUL whenever it happens to be the best route. It gets the job done. The AC preclearance lounge there, in fact, might be the one part of the airport that does feel a bit airy and nice. (And for a little regional rivalry: despite Ottawa’s airport being substantially nicer in general, they don’t even *have* any preclearance lounges. Score a big point in Montreal’s favor there.)

  61. I dunno, Lucky. I spent a night in a “charming” white wooden “Cape Cod” rocking chair in the bridge between two terminals at BOS. Hard-core mileage run, arrive BOS after midnight, wheels up at 06:00. My Kingdom for a pod…

    I guess I simply disagree with your logic and your “get a room” dismissal of the demand. I would have got a room that night if they weren’t hilariously expensive, priced on the stupid assumption that people sleep at night, are awake in daytime, and rent rooms on a 24-hour cycle. A hotel, in the erminal, pricing rooms by the hour, should be standard in any “International” airport.

    Let the demand sort out whether it’s “necessary”.

  62. It’s not that the US terminals themselves are inferior – as you rightly point out, the new LAX terminal is wonderful – but I would again put the blame on security. I find it quite hard to really enjoy a terminal after going through a remarkably inefficient, unfriendly line and already feeling quite annoyed.

    On the other hand, airports such as Changi and Hong Kong have incredibly fast security lines without being lax.

  63. Nick you give a breath of fresh air to this blog. Good job! But to your point:

    Yes, US airports do suck, mostly. The problem is that they’re too generic. Even though some airports have nicer facilities, like IAD for example, which I very much like, they’re still generic airports. McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and Subway is everywhere. The same flooring, the same generic design, everywhere.

    SOME are improving. By some of course I mean one or two. Boston Logan for example? Smells like feet and piss. Boston Logan International Terminal (Terminal E)? “Brand new”, no feet or piss smell, but, with two shops. JFK? Colonized by mice. MIA, impractical design, but you defended that, so, lack of quality – fake plants, fake food, fake massage shops. The list goes on.

    Unfortunately, unlike you assume in your post, it isn’t about the money. Europe is in a deep recession for example, but you don’t hear people complaining about their airports as much as they do for the US. Chances are that they are better maintained, and that you will find at least one unique little store in their airports. And by unique I mean some boutique company that made it just enough so that they can open their one shop in a European airport – whether it’s a cafe or a clothing/accessories store. Even Geneva’s airport, who’s age is really, really showing, has its fair share of unique little shops. People appreciate uniqueness, and it distracts them from the imperfections of their surroundings. In general, even older airports outside the US are given more care, both in terms of maintenance, and in terms of making an effort to make them unique.

    This isn’t just a problem in US airports however, it is a problem in American infrastructure in general. No other country in the world is so overrun by large corportations. And what do corporations strive for, and achieve? Efficiency. And what does efficiency look like? Genericness (made up my own word here, sorry). And if every shop in every airport is exactly the same, then what will you start noticing? The airport itself. And everyone knows that US airports aren’t exactly in the most perfect condition. This goes beyond airports by the way, it extends to hotels, in roads and bridges, in bus and train travel, etc. Infrastructure in general is something that has stood still in time in America. Unless you travel on your own terms and really try hard, ie: rent a car, book boutique hotels, search hard for unique restaurants, travel in the US is just… generic.

    Sorry to break it to you, but it’s opinions like yours that are at fault to this. “American airports aren’t the best, but they get the job done”. That’s why a W in the US is just okay (and in some cases crap), but a W elsewhere is like the best hotel ever. This isn’t the way Americans think about everything else, I usually find that Americans strive for the best in what they do, so I don’t know why they seem to think that way about their infrastructure.

    Conclusion is this: American airports are certainly not the best (I think we all can admit that) but they’re also not the worst airports in the world. They come in right in the middle. Just like most things handled by corporate America: efficient, generic, and in the middle. If that’s the way you want things to be, then, cool. “Generic” for a lot of people however, combined with bad smells, dirty seating, and a few mice here and there, sucks.

    PS: The fact that the US airports are so old and not-so-well maintained makes them *by definition* less environmentally friendly than their international counterparts. So, unlike the point you make, the “lack of care for environmental impact” is by no means even a remote reason why airports outside the US are better.

  64. Evaluate airports by their purpose – domestic/shorthaul airports for quick, convenient connections and decent food, o/d airports for quick in/out and convenience, international hubs for ammenities to support longer layovers. Functionally, us airports mostly do pretty well in most cases…and a lot of the ones that might excel in ammenities have other drawbacks. Muc is mentioned as great – did not seem appreciably better than msp when I visited, for my purposes (comparing to similar size).

  65. Tegel is one of the best and ingeniously designed airports ever. It was built before the goal became to stretch the path of the passenger through a maximum number of duty-free shops and bars — it was designed for exactly the opposite. Unfortunately it is difficult to grasp for modern passengers who are trained that airport = endless and mindless shopping, shopping, shopping…

  66. I’m now convinced that Tegel Airport doubles as the headquarters of a brainwashed cult, its members having renounced materialism, consumerism, aestheticism and joy in favor of some vague but unrealized promise of spartan, austere functionality.

    But hey, if we get these Tegel-loving folks over to New York, I’d love to hear their thoughts on Penn Station. (“So spacious! So airy! So close to the city center! The smell of industrial-strength cleaner seems to have successfully and ingeniously masked the caked-in crust of urine and saliva on the floor!”)

  67. @Nick & @Matt. Yes, BCN & FCO definitely have trains at the airport. The train at FCO is quite fast and reliable, it’s just pricier than the metro is.

    @Mattias some of LAX is really nice (TBIT), some is just okay, and some is downright terrible (such as Terminal 1 where Southwest is; but they are renovating it).

    @Alex. That 150/175 ranking for Singapore is the Reporters Without Borders: Worldwide Press Freedom Index. It is not indicative of the overall human rights picture in Singapore.

  68. @Nick: This comment is laughable and shows that you actually have no clue what you are writing about: “There are plenty of airports in Europe without mass transit connection, either (BCN, MAD, FCO, TXL, off the top of my head)” – a SIMPLE Google search will tell you that BCN (Rodalies train), MAD (Madrid Metro), FCO (Leonardo Express) all have transit connections, and no doubt these transit systems far exceed any sort of outdated mass transit in the US that you listed (ever been on the NY subway? BART? Old, dirty, outdated, cramped – but the poor, shocking state of US trains/ mass transit is a whole other story). You have to leave Manhattan hours before check-in to take the cumbersome journey on the subway to JFK, compared to places like London etc. with their airport express trains. 2015 Skytrax World Airport Awards again shows the no US airport makes even the top 29! These are facts, Skytrax is the real measure as it is the only true world measure. Your “beautiful” SFO only manages 36 out of the top 100, beaten by Johannesburg. MOST European airports are much, much better than any US airport. I have experienced the hell of the US airports on a number of occasions, LAX has to be the worst by far but JFK is not far off that and ORD is ugly too! Perhaps you shouldn’t be critical of an article for its flaws when what you have written in reply is riddled with way more inaccuracies and a clear indication that you have not travelled enough through the various airports to make a justifiable comparison.

  69. In general, I would say yes – US airports do suck in comparison to their counterparts abroad.

    I have two general complaints about US airports. The first is lack of transit connections. I dont care whether its heavy rail, light rail, monorail, or a subway – something other than driving or a bus that gets stuck in the same traffic as everybody else.

    The second is the international to domestic connection. These days, even if you manage to clear immigration in a relatively short amount of time, you are STILL faced with security lines because you have to clear security to get airside domestically. That means if you are returning to the US from abroad, by necessity, you HAVE to have a longer connection time if you want to make your onward flight.

  70. On the whole I agree with Nick. Just comparing North American and European airports, these latter utterly lack, with no exceptions I am aware of, any sensibility worthy of the 24-hour global travel grid on which they are major hubs, even the largest ones (Paris-Charles de Gaulle). It’s so bad that in fact the ones that haven’t been renovated are the least dreadful, as they’ve at least got some nice 1979 bowling-alley charm going.

  71. america was a failed empire of hustlers, hucksters, and opportunists. THere was no narrative other than hustling–get money, get more money, and endless expansion. THat was it. It failed.

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