With LaGuardia Getting a Makeover, These are the 5 Other Worst Airports in America

New York LaGuardia is far from a gorgeous beacon of modernity, but it’s by far my preferred airport in the New York area because it’s close to the city and easy to get from curb to gate. Delays are common, of course, but that’s frequently a function of:

  • New York airspace.
  • Runway capacity
  • Weather

The solution to those things, apparently, is to spend billions of dollars and not address runways or airspace capacity. Instead they’re going to tear down existing terminals and create a new connected terminal. And they’re going to introduce new shopping and a hotel. And rail connectivity that doesn’t really make it more convenient to get into Manhattan.

Ben Mutzabaugh has a good piece on the other really bad airports.

The piece isn’t pollyanna-ish about LaGuardia, though, citing my take:

“Funny thing, I think the ‘makeover’ will make LaGuardia worse and not better,” says Gary Leff, author of the View from the Wing blog for frequent travelers. “They’re upending the place and spending billions of dollars without increasing runway capacity or improving New York airspace. And at the end we’ll have a single terminal that takes longer to traverse than the handful of minutes curb to gate that you have there today.”

I offered him four nominations for ‘worst’ airports:

  • New York JFK: disconnected terminals are more important here given domestic to international connections, and the quality of terminals varies tremendously.

  • Miami: long waits for checked baggage and security, long walks throughout the terminal, long distances to get to the train to get to the rental car center.

  • LAX: improving to be sure, but transportation in and out of the airport is a disaster. They’ve done a lot of work but have a long way to go.

  • Washington Dulles: even the airport train doesn’t drop United passengers off where the gates are, Taxicabs are a monopoly and that doubles the number of cab trips (awful for the environment).

And I highlighted issues with others though the final spot isn’t 100% clear to me, because as Henry Harteveldt different people will value different things in an airport. For instance, Newark is victim of New York airspace and its delays. The physical facility is much improved compared to when it housed PeoplExpress in my youth. Many hate Chicago O’Hare but I love Tortas Frontera enough that the airport doesn’t bother me.

My top four all made the cut, plus Chicago O’Hare, Newark, and Philadelphia. I’m torn on Philadelphia myself but I see the argument.

Regardless, it suggests some consensus amongst the rest of the group that Mutzabaugh consulted with:

  • Alan Bender, Professor of Aeronautics at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
  • Cynthia Drescher, Contributing Digital Editor at Condé Nast Traveler
  • Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research
  • Holly Hegeman, founder and publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter
  • Mary Kirby, founder and publisher of RunwayGirl Network
  • Bob Mann, president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co.
  • Chris McGinnis, founder of TravelSkills
  • Brett Snyder, The Cranky Flier

So do you agree? What are the worst airports — and will these investments in LaGuardia remove it from the list?

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 no fan of O’Hare or LAX, but I don’t see them as being quite as bad as the others mentioned here. The one I dislike the most is Newark. The changes to LaGuardia will presumably make it a more pleasant place to be stuck in, but beyond that I agree that they are $4 billion worth of cosmetic surgery.

  2. As an upper-Midwesterner who grew up a mere 75 minutes from O’Hare it has been the bane of my existence. All of that being said, my last trip there was much better than it has been. It used to be the T5, the International Terminal, had a very LGA-esque appearance to it with only tiny kiosks for duty free and food options and clearly without any renovation or even a refresh for decades. But, they have put an awful lot of work into it in recent years to the point where I no longer recognize T5 anymore. It was actually….pleasant. I almost feel weird to say that, but it’s true.

    As I am often going through O’Hare on connecting flights to/from MSN, those flights probably have a higher rate of cancellation than most. It’s easy enough just to pawn off the thankful passengers to the Van Galder bus company for a 3-hour bus ride to Madison. I find the amenities of O’Hare to be fine. Not spectacular or world class, but fine. As to the efficiency of the operation, well…at least it’s better than LGA I guess.

  3. Living 9 miles south of LAX, I’d say it’s not a terrible home airport–at least for me. It would be great if there were public transportation, but I’m close enough that I can almost always get a ride. And I can traverse up the beach instead of getting on the dreaded 405. Since this is home, I also don’t have to worry about connecting. On the plus side, I have tons of flying options and can get pretty much anywhere in the world. And the new international terminal is very spiffy.

    But for those that live elsewhere and fly in for a biz trip and needed to get downtown or to the westside, I can see why it’s on this list.

  4. Not sure how one can be “torn” on Philly…refugee camps offer a more civilized experience than that third world cesspool.

  5. Southwest terminal at LAS is pretty bad. Narrow antiquated gates with limited seating. Too much space used up by slot machines.

  6. Based on design and discounting it’s small size, I would nominate MCI – Kansas City. I know the idea was to have a short walk from curb to gate, but what actually results are 3 disconnected terminals that have such a narrow interior space that there’s no room for amenities like restaurants, and still not enough room for the walking corridor or the waiting areas by each gate.

    If this design was scaled up to the size of the majors (like LAX, ORD, ATL), it would be a disaster. Fortunately you don’t hear too many complaints because there aren’t that many people flying through it.

  7. @Gary sez “…although I suspect investments at LaGuardia won’t make it better any time soon.”

    How “soon” is soon? A project of the magnitude being contemplated to revamp LaGuardia won’t happen overnight. But the important point that the cynics and naysayers ( you know who you are) are missing is that everyone, including the federal government, knows that the revamping of NYC area airports is long overdue and that now is the time. It is not about politics. It is about the reality that the airports’ crumbling infrastructure is not only a great embarrassment to the country’s and world’s #1 city, but that it is also becoming an increasing safety and security risk. The will to do to something about it is there and very strong, and it will now get done, efficiently and within budget.

    Just you watch, naysayers and cynics!

  8. I personally find MIA t be one of the better big city airports. Better than LAX. I flly LAX-MIA monthly. The old MIA was a disaster.

    I do sympathize with those that finds the walks challenging. But even though it’s 5 moving walkways from the elevator by baggage claim to the train, it’s about 15% of the time that waiting for the Avis bus used to be in the old MIA.

    The trains are quite helpful for the distances, and there seem to be plenty of courtesy shuttles to give you rides to the far gates if you need the assistance.

    I can’t speak for immigration/customs however, I’m talking from a domestic traveler’s perspective.

  9. LGA isn’t really that bad…just need lounges airside (in the main terminal like the AA club is) and an airside link between piers (as does EWR). IAD is the worst by far, a true dump beyond its B pier, and that intra-terminal train link is a disaster with the C stop a mile from the pier! PHL needs better interconnection than those buses for its sprawl, and MIA needs airside, moving sidewalk links for its piers. Little can be done about ATC issues in the NYC area, and where would another runway go at LGA?

  10. Fully agree on JFK and IAD! I personally would say EWR belongs on the list which always makes me feel like I am in a Third World country. What a dump!

  11. @DCS but they are making the WRONG investments. They want to make the terminals look pretty. They aren’t adding runways or making investments to increase the capacity of New York airspace.

  12. I half agree on IAD. If you live in Northern VA, though, it is not as remote, and just an Uber ride to get there, with a dedicated lane for travel to Dulles (return is the Washington Flyer monopoly, as you note). And with the updating of the security area downstairs, the new underground train and walkways (you can walk from the main terminal to A/B, and I often do), and the renovated A/B gates (mainly for international carriers), I like those parts of Dulles. C/D gates (mainly UA) are a dump. There are plans to update those, but no apparent effort to put them into effect.

    By the way, when the metro gets there (some day), I think it is supposed to have the station near the garage on the right as you face the terminal, and you should be able to walk to the terminal (like the covered walkway currently there). A long walk, I am sure, but not a shuttle.

  13. Just yesterday, I dealt with the disaster of Miami international baggage claim for the first time. It blew my mind. I don’t think I will ever do that again. I will fly through a different airport, or, if I can’t do that, I will only do carry-ons.

  14. I think the IAD hate is overblown. The problem with IAD is that people compare it to DCA. No, it is not DCA where you pop in after your meeting and 30 minutes before your flight and walk through security onto your RJ back to your small home airport. You should not be using IAD for domestic O&D traffic unless you are a United junkie.

    IAD exists for one specific purpose – long-haul international travel. Take an uber or EY Chauffeur Drive, hit a lounge, get on a plane, and fly someplace very far away. If you’re going to go to Europe/Asia/ME it sure beats leaving DCA and connecting through JFK/ORD/etc.

  15. @Gary — I am not sure where you get your information from but on anything related to NYC/NY, the NY Times is the paper of record and in their piece on July 27 on the planned renovation of LGA, they had this that directly contradicts your claim:

    “The plan went beyond aesthetics: The airport buildings would be moved south, closer to the parkway. The move would allow the creation of roughly two miles of new taxiways that officials said would help alleviate the airport’s chronic delays.”

    Seems to me that it is clear that it will be more than just aesthetics…

  16. @DCS taxiways aren’t runways. There’s more room for planes to queue for their long delays. The plan explicitly doesn’t touch runways. Did you know LaGuardia used to have FOUR runways? And it does nothing to improve the congested airspace in the area that makes not just LaGuardia but also Newark, JFK, and Philadelphia among the worst in the country for delays.

  17. @Gary — There is the ideal solution and then there is the doable solution. The former would be nice but not attainable considering the limited space, so they went for the doable solution, which when correctly implemented, should be infinitely better than the status quo…

  18. @DCS no, it won’t.

    1) they’re ripping up the place and not solving the problem. Things will be worse while they’re working on it.

    2) they’re building a terminal with larger arrivals and departures hall, it will increase the time it takes to get from curb to gate

    3) since *this* is the solution, it means we’re many many more years off of any other plan that would improve congestion, or improve transportation access from LaGuardia to downtown.

    This is a terrible boondoggle, a waste, and there’s nothing “infinitely better” about focusing on shopping, a hotel, instead of fixing LaGuardia’s real problems. And even now they’re talking about $4 billion, which isn’t a realistic cost figure considering that was already the (likely low) estimate for the Central Terminal project alone.

  19. @Gary — Please stick to blogging about flying. Do not try to pass yourself for a civil engineer qualified to make predictions about the inadequacy of airfields because you are not. I have the strong suspicion that your predictions of doom are all wrong but we’ll just have to wait and see…

  20. @CW…you bring up a valid point that IAD is an ok airport for international departures BUT I think it’s horrible for international ARRIVALS! There is nothing worse than sitting on a plane for 9+ hours only to be cattle hearded into those horrible people movers to be brought over to the customs arrival hall. What a good first impression this gives international travelers of our nations capitol! I have had to wait 30+ minutes on those people movers until the flight crew finally got off a plane before it would move.

  21. @DCS I will defer to your engineering degree, if you explain to me how much less congested LaGuardia will be as a result of this project and if your analysis logically holds together, thanks!

  22. @Christian – no doubt, that definitely is no fun. Last time I was out there to pick up a family member arriving from Asia, it was about 2 hours between when he landed and when he cleared the whole mess. That said, still faster and less risky than an extra domestic connection.

  23. @Garry — Instead of making doomsday predictions and issuing challenges based on insufficient data, the logical thing to do is to wait at least until the project takes shape before being too cynical. LGA is ranked so low as an airport on so many fronts that the only place it has to go is up, so that the naysayers and cynics should just step back and give the proposed renovation a chance. It is going to happen because it has the momentum and it is going to be an improvement over the status quo — not a very high bar to clear.You’ll get over it…

  24. @DCS They’re focusing on the wrong things at LaGuardia. It’s an O/D airport, connecting the terminals isn’t a huge benefit. Transportation is a problem but their transportation investment won’t get you conveniently downtown. I don’t need to wait to know (a) what the problems are, and (b) that the proposals don’t address those things. It’s a huge, inconvenient, boondoggle of a project. Which is sad *because it isn’t just a waste of time and money* if it is “the solution” for LaGuardia that means it trades of with what might actually be done to fix the place.

  25. My old home airport was LGA; my new one is DEN. I’ll take LaGuardia any day! The worst thing about it is the transit connections (http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2015/07/our-third-world-airport.html gets it about right). I don’t want a terminal that’s a nice place to spend time — I want one where I spend minimal time. Short curb-to-gate distances and short taxi distances are key.

    It appears that the new design will lengthen curb-to-gate distances both by bulking up the arrival/departure halls and by centralizing security. And the new train will be all but useless for Manhattan travel; all analyses I’ve seen of it indicate it will be slower than existing options unless you happen to be going to Times Square when the 7 express is running.

  26. I rank/judge airports based on *how I use them* – meaning often completely different criteria for domestic vs. international flying.

    Domestic – I mostly want to get in/out quickly, or be able to connect easily and reliably + have good lounge options and access to acceptable and somewhat healthy food options (which in most cases can mean 1-2 convenient and solid food options, ideally with local flavor). Quick access to rentl cars. Convenient hotel/hotels if stranded overnight are also useful. Shopping is way down the list.

    LGA sucks, and as you say – it’s largely airspace, capacity and weather, which the proposed plan does not address. But it also sucks for lack of airside space for more room at gates and for lounges (e.g. the centurion lounge landside is the one I care about) to sit out delays + avoid the gate traffic jams. If you can’t change the weather or the airspace issues…you can at least make being delayed suck less. As long as this doesn’t kill the curb-to-gate time (and it’s not completely clear that it will…although the odds are sketchy on that) it could be a beneficial project, albeit at a steep price.

    So it’s at least addressing most of what a terminal project can – even if billions to be able to wait out delays in a lounge is exhorbitant.

    MCI is also terrible, as mentioned. DEN sucks due to location and time to get in/out with a rental car.

    A lot of the disconnected-terminal airports can vary from great to terrible depending on carrier and itinerary – they’re more “inconsistent” than bad (and really difficult to fix) and for many uses are good. LAX as a car-renting DL flyer was actually quite good, when I was flying DL and using it regularly (except for LA traffic).

    Most US airports are actually much better than we give them credit for, for how I tend to use them. Most of the showpiece asian etc airports people love to cite as great…would not be nearly as functional for similar use.

  27. @Gary — I will just have to defer to civil engineers on this because unlike you I make no claims to being a “thought leader in travel.”


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