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The Best and Worst U.S. Airports of 2019

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 11/13/2019 Scott McCartney
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Maybe friendly really is as good as it gets when it comes to airports.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which bills itself as America’s friendliest airport, scored best among the 20 largest U.S. airports in this year’s Wall Street Journal airport rankings.

We also decided this year to rank the 20 largest airports after that—let’s call them medium-size. We split them into two categories because large hubs really have different challenges.

Tampa International Airport ranked slightly higher than Portland International Airport in Oregon. Both have strong followings among frequent travelers for their ease of use and amenities.

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At the bottom of rankings in both size categories: anything close to New York. New York Kennedy and Newark Liberty placed 19th and 20th, respectively, in the large airport category. New York LaGuardia scored lowest in the medium-size category.

The WSJ ranked airports by five measures of operations, such as on-time arrivals, five measures of value, such as average fare, and five measures of convenience, including a grade from readers. More than 2,500 subscribers answered a detailed questionnaire covering a dozen categories of likes and dislikes at airports they’ve used within the past two years.

a view of a large body of water with a city in the background: Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is centrally located, has good food, few delays, moderate fares, speedy Wi-Fi, short security screening waits and cheap parking.
 © Shutterstock Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is centrally located, has good food, few delays, moderate fares, speedy Wi-Fi, short security screening waits and cheap parking.

It says something about the state of airports in the U.S. that the highest WSJ reader score was only a B, with Detroit Metro’s score the highest among large airports. Six got C grades or lower. The average GPA: C+.

Phoenix excelled in several of the 15 categories, with short screening waits, fast Wi-Fi, good Yelp scores for restaurant reviews, short taxi-to-takeoff times for planes and cheap average Uber cost to get downtown. It also scored well among Wall Street Journal readers.

(See a full explanation of the WSJ’s Airport Rankings methodology.)

Sky Harbor overtook Denver, last year’s winner, largely on the Phoenix airport’s improved average Yelp rating for restaurants and an investment in faster Wi-Fi triggered by customer complaints. The airport has the advantage of favorable weather. It jumped to No. 2 among the 20 largest from No. 18 in Wi-Fi speed last year, according to testing service Ookla. Denver also suffered many more operations problems in the past 12 months. Phoenix finished third overall last year, also trailing Orlando.

Sky Harbor focuses on making a big airport—an inherently stressful and impersonal place—more pleasant, says James Bennett, director of aviation services for the city of Phoenix. The airport even started stationing therapy dogs in terminals in 2017, working with volunteers who give directions.

By branding itself as America’s friendliest airport, Mr. Bennett says Sky Harbor began taking more ownership of the customer experience. In the past, airports often just leased space to airlines and let airlines rule the roost, even though airlines usually just wanted cheap places to load and unload passengers and luggage.

“We want to try to make sure that that passenger experience is as painless as possible,” he says.

Competition is such that an airport can win while still being mediocre in several categories. Phoenix ranked 19th in the number of nonstop cities served among the 20 largest airports—it lacks lots of international service. A hub for American, it’s in the middle of the pack in terms of average fare and 15th in terms of the longest walk from the curb to the farthest gate.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is in the midst of a massive $24 billion rebuilding program at LaGuardia, JFK and Newark. Improvements have already started coming online, especially at LaGuardia, where one-third of the gates in use are new. But with that has come even more hassle for travelers with construction inconvenience mixed in with record-high passenger traffic.

“We know we have a very, very long way to go,” says Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority. “With new facilities and a renewed emphasis on customer and passenger experience, we can move from back of the pack to first class.”

Detroit was the favorite among readers without the analytical data. Detroit tied for third overall with Fort Lauderdale, Fla., among large airports when analytical data was included.

Tampa finished best among medium-size airports without ranking first in any of the 15 categories. Its lowest scores came in operations. Over the 12-month period ending July 31, only 78% of flights arrived on-time in Tampa, ranking 17th. The airport’s cancellation rate was high enough to rank it No. 13.

Airport chief executive Joe Lopano says Tampa is located in a thunderstorm alley and weather often forces ground operations to halt. The local NHL team is named the Tampa Bay Lightning, after all.

But the airport has had an aggressive campaign to recruit new airline service, often using incentives to promote the new service for the first two years. New entrants have stayed after the incentives expired, Mr. Lopano says. Tampa enjoys nonstop service to Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Zurich in Europe, plus Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Salt Lake City in the West. That increased competition helps keep fares low.

With a growing business community, “there’s a recognition by all airlines that we are not just a leisure beach destination,” he says.

Tampa also benefits from a super-efficient design that reduces walks. The airport is shaped like a flower stem, with a central terminal and parking, then four satellite buildings with gates connected by short tram rides.

Travelers say the airport is known for its cleanliness, and they take note of other changes, like good local food. Tampa rebid its concession contract so that instead of one company operating every restaurant, the airport now has four different concessionaires. That created competition. The airport recently spent $4 million renovating bathrooms in the main terminal to look like the ones at high-end hotels. It’s also constructing express drop-off and pickup curbs for passengers without checked luggage who already have their boarding pass to reduce congestion.

Portland International Airport is most famous among travel nerds for its noise-reducing carpet. Its original 1987 warm blue-green design showing the PDX runway layout has inspired clothing, shoes, its own Facebook page and a cult following.

Vince Granato, chief operating officer of the Port of Portland, says travelers also like the local eateries—the Portland airport was one of the first to shed chains—and local retailers with reasonable prices. “We want to make sure when you get into the airport here you know you are in Portland,” he says.

Among the findings in the data: The shortest average security waits for standard screening in June, a peak travel month, were at Chicago O’Hare for large airports and Nashville for medium-size airports. The longest were in Atlanta and Dallas Love Field, airports with one big central checkpoint subject to crowds.

San Francisco has the best food, at least according to Yelp reviewers, but medium-size airports tend to do food even better. Houston Hobby, Portland, Honolulu and Austin, Texas, all had higher Yelp scores than SFO’s. Worst: Chicago Midway, even worse than Newark’s. Midway is great if you want a hot dog. Otherwise, slim pickings.

Food is supposed to be a lot better in the new airport terminal in New Orleans, which opened Nov. 6, too late for this year’s rankings. The new terminal, long delayed in construction, still has kinks to work out. It opened with long lines and angry travelers worried about missing flights.

At the suggestion of readers last year, we looked at, but didn’t rank, the longest walk between gates—hypothetically the longest possible connection. Travelers pointed out that at big hubs, more people are connecting than walking from curb to gate. The connection distances sometimes involved different airlines, making the numbers impractical in many cases. So we didn’t include them in rankings. But they do give an indication of the sprawl of the airport.

And they do sprawl. Philadelphia was the worst at 7,603 feet, reported by the airport. Los Angeles was also over 7,000 feet. The mile-plus club also includes Denver, Charlotte, Chicago-O’Hare, Minneapolis and Newark.

The results show that, compared with last year, on-time arrivals got worse at 14 of the 20 large airports. The biggest decline was Dallas/Fort Worth, down to 75% from 82% of flights arriving within 14 minutes of scheduled arrival time. Boston, Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Houston Bush and Seattle all saw on-time arrivals drop at least 3 percentage points.

Airports can do some things to improve on-time performance, such as building adequate taxiways, runways and gates. But it’s largely a reflection of the local dominant airline. In this case, DFW’s decline reflects American’s operational problems this year. Likewise, Detroit, Atlanta and Minneapolis—all Delta hubs—had the best on-time record among large airports.

Wi-Fi bogged down in Houston, Philadelphia and Seattle, according to speed tests compiled by Ookla. (Seattle again was fastest.) But for the most part, Wi-Fi got a lot faster at big airports. Phoenix, for example, jumped from 9.5 megabits per second download speed to 93.5 Mbps. Minneapolis finished last in Wi-Fi speed in 2018; this year it's in eighth place among large airports, jumping to 60.9 Mbps from 7.7 Mbps.

The lowest average food reviews were in Newark, JFK, Fort Lauderdale and Seattle. The highest reviews after San Francisco came from Denver, Dallas and Phoenix.

Corrections & Amplifications: Tampa International Airport is constructing express drop-off and pickup curbs for passengers without checked luggage. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the curbs are open. (Nov. 13, 2019)

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