Stop Building Great Airports and Build a Great Travel Experience!

Reihan Salam, via Tyler Cowen, says that if you want to improve air travel you should focus on reducing congestion, not building palatial airports.

The chief problem with our airports is not (pace Larry Summers) that they’re not as sleek and modern as the vast white elephants you’ll find in East Asia. Rather, it is that they are congested, and the reason they are congested is that the federal government doesn’t provide for market-rate pricing for take-off and landing slots. This straightforward reform would greatly increase the productivity, not to mention the pleasantness, of our aviation system. Yet it doesn’t involve spending billions of dollars and cutting ribbons, so politicians are by and large not interested.

I’d take issue with his characterization of sleek modern airports being White Elephants in parts of Asia. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi probably is (though unquestionably the old Don Muang airport lacked needed capacity, and in fact the new one does too in addition to having suffered from construction issues and mismanagement).

On the other hand Singapore’s airport is part and parcel of the nation’s branding, an image that probably does contribute on net to its GDP. Any given project, like the new terminal 4, may or may not make sense on its own but that the airport is probably the single best both for amusement (free movie theatre, nature exhibits) and for transit (security at each gate makes international-to-international connections a breeze and no passport control required) is creates a huge advantage in attracting passengers.

Improvements at the Sydney airport have even been profit-driven, management and operation of the airport belong to the Sydney Airport Corporation. (A second Sydney Airport, operation of which the Sydney Airport Corporation has a right of first refusal, could well be a different matter.)

However Salan’s position seems mostly true in the U.S. There are some real boondoggles. Denver – which didn’t learn its lesson from expensive baggage systems that didn’t work – is a great example.

So is New York LaGuardia which is slated to get a new Central Terminal in 2021. In December I asked, “Wanna Bet?”

New York LaGuardia’s plan for a new Central Terminal includes:

• Unifying world-class architectural appearance across all new elements of the New LaGuardia;
• A central arrival and departures portal with first-class shopping, dining, and business amenities linking previously disconnected terminals;
• Capacity for a future hotel on the airport grounds;
• Future rail connection, including plans for an AirTrain connecting the airport to the subway for the first time;
• A people-mover that enables passengers to traverse easily from one end of the airport to the other;
• A cell-phone lot waiting area and improved road configuration;
• An adequate level of parking to accommodate travelers arriving by car at the airport.

That is:

  1. A ton to fit onto the airport’s tiny footprint

  2. Probably not what’s needed for an airport whose primary business is quick and efficient origination/destination travel and very little connecting traffic.

You don’t need “first-class shopping, dining, and business amenities” and “A people-mover that enables passengers to traverse easily from one end of the airport to the other” at LaGuardia (although at a price of zero these things would be ‘nice’). You need things that increase the airport’s capacity to… get people in and out quickly, and get planes in and out of the air quickly. Investments should play to the airport’s strengths, how it’s actually used.

There are unquestionably bad airports in the United States. But what makes them bad?

  • Distance from city center. This increases travel times.

  • Difficulty in getting to and from. There may be a lack of transportation options, taxicab monopolies like at Washington Dulles, terrible traffic, congested terminal roadways like at LAX.

  • Congested airspace It’s a good idea to avoid connections through New York when possible!

  • Bad weather O’Hare in Winter, afternoons in the Northeast during summer, there are times when weather increases the likelihood you’ll have problems flying in and out of a given city.

  • Interminably long walks. An airport’s layout is sprawling, and there’s no good way to get from departure/arrivals hall to and from the gate. Even where there’s trains, they can be placed so badly that you have to walk long distances — like the train to the rental car center in Miami and the Airtrain at JFK.

  • Long lines. This usually means security, customs, and immigration. There are places where government staffing simply doesn’t match passenger flow.

We’d be much better off as travelers if we got NextGen air traffic control that actually worked, and perhaps demand-based pricing for takeoffs and landings, than another shopping arcade filled with stores that most passengers can’t afford to visit.

We’d be much better off with airports that efficiently moved people from their initial location to their gate, and on arrival to their final destination, than sprawling complexes that are cumbersome to traverse.

And as much as I like familiar restaurant names, even the best restaurants are usually bad in airports anyway.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Alternately, you could reduce US congestion with the Canadian pricing model where airport costs are paid by the flying public rather than the US model where the general public subsidies air travel costs.

  2. Agree on all of that. Especially about Laguardia. I had once seen an outside-the-box plan relating to Laguardia that would involve the airport taking over Rikers and kicking the prison off to somewhere else. I liked that idea. Laguardia’s gates, tarmacs and runways need expansion just to accomodate existing schedules so you don’t have to schedule a flight from LGA-ORD with an extra 45 minutes of fluff time built in.

  3. The new Qatar Doha Airport terminal is an example of what not to do with a new airport. It’s a joke. Loud, brash, completely over the top. It’s all show and no substance. It’s so typical of the Middle Eastern values. “Look at how much money we have” or some might say “Look at how small our penises are so let’s build a big monument”. If I was the owner of DOH, I’d want my money back. And to think they are going to have the Soccer World Cup in a few years! Alarming

  4. F Canada…. and by the way… you’ve never “SUBSIDIZED” one cent of my ass.

    Face it . America has become a nation of wusses sitting around thinking they paid for everybody else when truth is you hardly ever leave your living room because you’re too busy watching bad Seth McFarlane cartoons and listening to old pressed copies of Cypress Hill.

    Subsidy? Bull sheet.

  5. “Improvements at the Sydney airport have even been profit-driven, management and operation of the airport belong to the Sydney Airport Corporation” [snip]

    Ah, yes, Sydney Airport and ‘profits’. SYD Airport, by virtue of its owner, Macquarie Bank, has the second most expensive parking of any airport on Earth.

    Most expensive? Ferenc Liszt, in Budapest.

    Owner: Macquarie Bank.

  6. @Marcus Moronist
    you don’t have to agree and probably can’t understand it, but it is tru, airports are subsidized by taxpayers money
    I am a US citizen living in Canada and I can tell you that the airports here are among the best in North America, probably the best, as there is a passenger fee on departure
    You don’t have to like the facts but that is irrelevant
    You are right about Americans though,,,you just proved your point

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