Why Are US Airports So Bad?

A Hong Kong-based journalist emails to ask, “Why are US airports so bad?”

The thing about US airports is they aren’t all bad.

The most frequent experiences that non-US residents have are bad, but that’s mostly a function of Miami, New York JFK, and Los Angeles (the international terminal – egads – even with recent improvements).

The airports that such folks see represent the worst of American aviation.

Now, I actually like JFK’s terminal 7. It’s small and easy in/out. And terminal 8 is rather attractive. Much has been made of the massive revamp of the Delta terminal. But the airport itself remains a mess: there terminals aren’t connected at all airside, and in many cases you even need to go outside and cross a road to reach the interterminal train. You can’t even get an airport hotel pickup outside of your terminal, you must first take that train. There’s very little redeeming about JFK…

On the other hand, the DFW D terminal is pretty good, and so is San Francisco’s terminal 2.

But on the whole US airports are (1) older, and (2) getting capital projects through approval processes is an ossified process relative to Asia. And it’s not just the US, the same issues apply to Europe. A simple contrast: Beijing’s terminal 3 was a four year project, and London Heathrow’s terminal 5 was a twenty year project.

US airports are no worse than and often better than European airports. Anyone that’s traveled through Paris (either Charles de Gaulle or Orly – both are terrible but for different reasons) or Barcelona can attest.

Asian airports are newer. They are also designed without the same constraints. And they are built for connecting traffic. The US is much larger than most Asian countries, a much higher percentage of Asian airport traffic is international connecting.

Of course it’s easy to say, sitting in Hong Kong or Singapore or Seoul, that US airports are worse. But those don’t represent the whole of Asia, either. Indian airports are generally worse than their US counterparts…

But then we also have worse airlines, Indian airlines excluded as 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 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. Spent about 1.5 years trawling around India and the planes were new, the service gracious, hot and DELICIOUS food on even flights less than an air, buy up to premium seats for $5-8 bucks, ran on time. And even the low fare guys like SpiceJet and Indigo offered avery competitive in flight product for the price. Purchased food was more than adequate and reasonably priced.

  2. Asia is doing now what the US was doing in the 1960s and 1970s, when aviation was taking off (no pun intended) and there were huge (for the day) projects like Pan Am’s Worldport. Asia’s projects are of course going to be newer and bigger, because more people are flying in bigger jets than they were back then, and are backed by huge sums of government money, which the US as of late has been reluctant to spend on infrastructure.

  3. the airports are okay enough – it’s the people who work there that’s the problem. the attitude you get from TSA and INS is ridiculous. in any Asian airport you’d be fired instantly if you treat customers like that, but thanks to union rules, they have a guaranteed paycheck while enjoying their power trip.

    FRA is not all glam like ICN or SIN, but it’s clean and functional. Can’t say that about most US airports (JFK T-2 is a good example of US failure)

  4. Yeah, no doubt Asian airports are newer and more pleasant to transit. One airport that you failed to mention as being substandard is O’Hare. Fortunately much of ORD’s international traffic does not originate out of Terminal 5, it’s international terminal. I have always thought that to be an embarrassment by an international terminal standards, especially for an airport the size, and with the traffic, of ORD. I heard they were finally discussing plans to actually have restaurants/bars after security. Not sure if those are being implemented or not. But the pre-wrapped sandwhiches you can buy from a cart don’t really get it done.

    I am not a huge duty-free shopper, and usually am annoyed by it (Though I did finally cave and buy a Toblerone), but I believe ORD’s Terminal 5 has small kiosks for duty free shopping. It’s sad, really.

  5. @ Cory – T5 at ORD is substantially improved with lots of new dining and shopping options. The lounges are pretty solid but nothing mindblowing. They do need to add some more seating though.

  6. Having just completed a three-week journey through Asia, I can attest that GMP, HND, SDK, and BKI are not shining stars of Asian airports. They aren’t bad, but certainly not world class. GMP is no ICN, and HND is no NRT. Certainly, they have their own purposes.

    Point being, not every Asian airport is an awesome airport, just as not every US airport is a dump. I actually don’t mind ORD, as long as its running on time.

  7. Actually DTW is on par with Asian airports of similar size. It is large, clean, and (mostly) all connected airside (unless you are going between McNamara and North terminals..but not a lot of people need to make that connection). If JFK or LAX or ORD were replaced with a LARGER version of DTW I’d be happy! ATL isn’t horrible either…but some of the terminals are just TOO narrow and there is A LOT of walking if you flight arrives at a gate at the end/tip of a terminal.

  8. Very interesting article. I can understand why someone from Hong Kong would ask that; indeed, since HK is one of the best (especially for One World Emerald members) then yeah, every other airport is a step down.

    But for LAX, JFK, and Miami, I can say that arriving at the airports will always be worse than departing from them, and yes, depending on the airline does change impressions. If you get used to those airports, they become more home than not, especially watching rank amateurs walk through them. For example, knowing how to board the JFK AirTrain faster if physically able is always more fun than getting lost ‘cuz lack of signs 9like going to ground level, run across the street, take the elevator up, etc.)

    I always have good luck through LAX flying American because it’s right next to the International terminal—gives me access to two (2) first class lounges. But if flying another airline, forget it. Ditto with JFK.

    But try YYZ (Toronto), talk about a disaster of an airport. It’s actually great to arrive and then stay overnight, but to do a direct transfer—forget it. It’s double passport control interrogation, currency exchanges that are rip-off centers, tax-exempt refund scheme discontinued for hotel stays, and a mess of sandwich centers, and even AA’s Admiral’s club won’t let anyone in (if staying overnight) ‘cuz the US side is considered a domestic flight. Ridiculous.

    Miami? Yes, a disaster. Flew in once just to see how bad it was, and then hit with a rainstorm delaying me for 6 hours. Learned the lesson by volunteering to know it first hand by doing. lol


  9. One problem is that US airports are now what used to be US bus terminals. Flying is relatively inexpensive compared to prices in many Asian countries (a domestic Chinese flight that costs $US 150 is around RMB 900+ which is quite a lot of money for many people over there).

  10. Lack of infrastructure funding. Typical US malaise. Do it later and pass the costs on to future generations mentality.
    It’s the entire US debt problem in a nutshell. No one wants to spend the money now to plan for the future. Thus the US lacks high speed rail.

  11. Patricia is right. For the *most part* it’s not the airports, it’s the government employees working there on pseudo power trips and airline employees parroting the “just say no” mantra of their superiors. Most facilities are fine…

  12. The US isn’t investing in these things because there is little support or need. Fancy airports are, in part, vanity projects to enhance a city or country’s profile. New York, Miami and LA don’t have an image problem that they care to fix and airports are more of a utilitarian need to service tourism and business cheaply and satisfactorily. There is little rush to over-improve and no return on investment would be seen on that capital expense most likely. If people don’t like the airport, they can fly somewhere else as far as those cities are concerned.

  13. Surprised you didn’t mention a couple of key points that explain this:
    1) Airport user fees are capped, and they aren’t allowed–I think by law–to be dynamically priced (ie, Monday morning costs more than Saturday night);
    2) US airports are often run by quasi-government agencies and are subject to political pressures.

    Abroad, privately run and financed airports run laps around what we have here in the states.

    Of course, I’m sure if you had said those things, at least a handful of your readers would flame you for pushing “View from the Right Wing,” etc, etc. The fact is that we have chosen a system that disincentivizes long-term investment and profit-seeking.

    The closest near apples to apples comparison would be US vs. Australia. I’ve flown in/out of SYD, BNE, MEL, LST, and HOB. There is a clear emphasis on making it incredibly easy to get from the airport entrance to the plane doors as quickly and efficiently as possible. So, I’ve flown domestic in Australia (non-connecting), having arrived at the airport 25m before takeoff, and I have still had time to sit and drink a coffee (no hot drinks on board). Is that preferable to having a massive food court, super-fast wifi, and multiple bars? I would argue it is.

    As for @Peter, the reason we don’t have HSR in the US is that it is incredibly expensive to build rail, and we simply don’t have the density (outside of the NE I-95 corridor) to have it make sense. And, in the I-95 corridor, you run into the fact that it would be obscenely pricy to get right-of-way to build HSR, and even then, it still wouldn’t make sense. We have a spread out country, and that’s why flying makes sense. This isn’t Europe. Additionally, Europe has massively state subsidized HSR, which we are somewhat (rightly) loathe to do, outside of the boondoggle in California.

  14. I should say the tourism industry is always pushing for better transport facilities but it’s unclear if the municipalities would see a high enough tax increase to support more than adequate investment. High speed rail is huge money loser, subsidized heavily by states all over the world. In europe the payoff off all that money is extensive network that can be relied on for serious travel by a populous that prefers train travel (not just a few eastern seaboard cities serving a populous that mostly doesn’t care). High speed trains in europe are also quite expensive and will be asia as subsidies lower.

  15. I’ll echo what @beaubo said. I flew JetAirways from BOM-GOA. It was a 6AM flight which was all of about 45 minutes and they served breakfast on the flight. Not only that, it was one of the best damn breakfast sandwiches I’ve had anywhere. The plane was brand new, it left and landed early, and everything about the experience left me wondering why I don’t get that sort of service out of American carriers? I was flying Y btw.

    As far as airports go, I’ll concede that most in India are sub-par, but the Mumbai’s new Terminal 2 is spectacular in every imaginable way. Google it and take a look at the pics. As good as they are, they don’t do it justice.

    In terms of JFK specifically, JetBlue’s T5 terminal is pretty damn nice from just about every angle.

    I just wish they could do something to really fix the disaster known as LGA. ­čÖü

  16. Erm cdg is MUCH nicer than lax/JFK. At least it’s all under 1 roof (mostly) and there’s a train station underneath. And BCNs new terminal is like a new shopping mall. London has t5 and t2 will be just as nice. Sure EU airports may suck but at least they’re improving. Not so much in the states… Tho the new lax TBIT is pretty nice but still has awful connections.

  17. Forget: JFK, LAX, MIA, and ORD

    DFW,SFO,SEA,PDX,DEN,SLC are all high quality airports by any standards.

    Even ATL, CLT,IAH,PHL,and even EWR (although often has delays) are all pretty decent airports by anyone’s standards.

    I think one has to remember that the U.S has tons of major airports/intl gateways compared to the rest of the world. There lies the problem, there can’t possibly be enough federal funding to go around and overhaul all these terminals.

  18. It’s worse due to the monkeys that are hired by the TSA. The only airports where the TSA is half decent is Burbank/SFO

  19. I think the basic idea — that Asian airports are newer, built in an age of much greater passenger volumes, and in political-regulatory climates that make it far easier to build at will — is fairly true.

    One could argue that privatization of airports has a consistently positive effect, and perhaps there are statistics that point to this, but my subjective experience is all over the board. LHR is privatized and it’s my least-favorite international hub in the world — I make it a point to always avoid transiting through it. FRA is privatized and while it’s a dream using the FCT, and the Squaire is great, navigating through the airport between flights makes me feel like I’m a rat in a maze with no cheese at the end. YVR is privatized and it’s my favorite airport in North America. On the other hand, the new international terminal at SFO is quite nice. I’ve made it from my arriving UA flight out of Japan, through Customs (using GE) and security, and to my UA domestic departure gate in 25 minutes. That’s fairly amazing. The new UA domestic gates at SFO and BOS are wonderful. So is there a pattern? It’s not clear to me.

  20. @gary – I’m surprised that you think BCN is not a nice airport. I’ve flown in and out of the old terminal literally a hundred times and find it very good (as far as an airport goes.) I find the new terminal is quite nice as well; spacious, attractive, good shops and food options. convenient transportation options. could you elaborated on your dislike for BCN?

  21. KLM at LAX just started operating out of TBIT, so I got to go through last week. It’s nice, the food options are decent, and the security lines seemed SOMEWHAT manageable, but for just having been completed, I was a little bit disappointed.

    The security procedure, while pleasant in this instance, would get really REALLY messy if there were too many flights departing close to each other. As it was, I think there was El Al, Singapore, KLM, ANA and Lufthansa, so it wasn’t nuts. The lines that lead up to the one or two TSA agents are short, and the potential for people to get crazy seems high if there was a long line.

  22. Gary, I used to think that the problem was American Airlines. Look at their hubs JFK, MIA, ORD, LAX – some of the worst airports in the USA. Sure DFW is the exception. In fact the majority of the othe airports in the US are just fine. SEA , PDX, DTW, DEN and others are quite nice.

  23. I agree with Patricia. The attitude of the US airport staff often spoils any positive mood associated with travelling. From there, everything just looks more awful than they really are. Ugh, such arrogance.

  24. from the comments: “the attitude you get from TSA and INS is ridiculous. in any Asian airport youÔÇÖd be fired instantly if you treat customers like that”

    I had to pause when I read this. Then I realized I mostly fly small airports where people are nice and traffic minor. But I wonder if OP has been to some of the smaller Chinese airports. Not much better than the worst US airports.

  25. Keep in mind that In the US there are nearly a dozen major international gateways, compared to just a few, or perhaps only one in the countries with the amazing airports, so I’m willing to grant the US a little slack. Although the people at US airports often aren’t the best, and that is not something that is impacted by number of gateways.

  26. @Preston: No one who truly believes privatized airports are superior would use SYD as an example.

    Easy to get from the entrance to the plane door quickly and efficiently? Seriously? One is quite literally forced to walk through a convoluted duty free mall both after security when departing and before immigration when arriving. The International terminal is dark, dirty, and crowded. Domestic may be marginally better, though of course you have to pay $5 and take PUBLIC TRANSIT if you want to transfer between terminals. And of course, let’s not forget the hourly movement cap, the curfew, and the ongoing efforts of the owners to sabotage the second airport. Yes, SYD truly showcases the merits of private ownership.

    The reason domestic travel in Australia is relatively easy is because they adequately staff their security points and don’t have all the stupid restrictions on liquids etc. the US does. That’s a reflection of government policy, not private ownership.

  27. It’s all about the US Customs/TSA For people who are transiting the US to go from Asia to South/Central America (or Europe) you have to clear through customs and immigration in the US. Transiting through Asian countries doesn’t require clearing customs or immigration unless it’s the first stop of the country you are visitng. Also, Hong Kong doesn’t require you to take off shoes, and Taipei doesn’t require you to dispose of liquids.

  28. I second Matt and robert b, your dig at BCN is wholly unjustified. The new terminal is great. Unless you are flying Ryanair or similar you will be in the new terminal.

  29. The odious employees at the ERW are a reason I will not be travelling to the USA again EVER IN MY LIFE. I do not give a rat’s arse if they are TWA, TSA, or whatever other acronym you guys use, they are THIEVES and they are THE FIRST REPRESENTATIVES of your country.

    I am a Canadian born in Europe who’s been living in Asia off and on for more about 7 years in the last decade. So I obviously not only do not wish (and I do NOT), but also do not need to ever return to that country whose only raison d’├¬tre seems to be to inconvenience Canada by blocking us direct land access to Mexico.

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