Terminal Illness: Readers’ Best and Worst Airports

(Photo: Simon_sees)

Thanks to those who participated in our call to sound off about your favorite and least favorite airports. The results: 

At the top of the list of best airports, by a long way, was Amsterdam’s Schiphol. I have not flown into Schiphol myself, but I’m not at all surprised by this ranking, as the Dutch are genius urban planners. Schiphol has a branch of the Rijksmuseum art museum, displaying actual old masters, and a shopping mall which is open to the public as well as travelers.

  • “Great options to suit everyone – awesome baby & kids facilities, casinos for dad and plenty of decent shopping as well as food options. It really made for an easy 6hr layover with baby.”—Cam

No, there are no “coffee shops,” in Schiphol, so don’t be attributing the glowing reviews to anything but the quality of the airport. (Perhaps the same cannot be said for Managua, Nicaragua, which reader ephman ranks as his favorite because “you can buy Oxycontin in the waiting area without a prescription to entertain yourself for the long flight to wherever you’re going.”)

A clear second place was taken by Singapore:

  • “Spacious, clean, gardens, showers, layover hotel, great shops with decent prices, layover city tour”—John
  • “A great hotel inside one of the terminals, chill-out zones, cinema, even a butterfly house”—David Keavnay 

Among American airports, high scorers were Charlotte (rocking chairs in the terminals), Austin, Baltimore-Washington, San Francisco, Denver, Tampa, Detroit (“so pretty, and well-designed, that main water fountain is gorgeous; maybe I just liked it because I had low expectations going into it, being Detroit”—xq), and Portland (has a mall with stores forbidden to charge prices higher than their off-airport locations, and live pianists).

However, one thing that clearly comes through is that the U.S. airports stack up poorly against their foreign counterparts. No American airport has reached the level of culture and sophistication of Munich, which features a mini golf course on the premises. And the South Korean airports draw raves, these about Seoul: 

  • “Clean and brilliantly organized, amazing facilities (including a day spa, movie theater and ice skating rink), friendly staff. This airport was more impressive and professional than any of the airports I visited in the States or anywhere else for that matter.”—Emily
  • “The best one I have ever been to by far. It is huge and has so many different shops to visit and foods to try. There is even a shop space set aside for cultural awareness of South Korean culture. It has South Korean music playing, shows traditional arts and dance, and has projects people can do and take with them. When I was there last, I was able to paint a wooden fan with the picture of a lotus flower.”—Amanda

In North America, people gushed over Vancouver International:

  • “Modern, spacious, never overcrowded, lots of helpful staff, and good food/shopping. Plus they have an indoor “rainforest,” jellyfish tank, and a waterfall that leads arriving passengers to the immigration area.”—Mark
  • “The moment you step off the plane and into the international arrivals area you are enveloped by a serene tranquility. Water trickles through the outdoor nature scene while birds sing their welcome. And I swear they pipe in mountain air!”—G. Watson 

As I’ve discovered, there are tremendous merits to flying in and out of smaller airports, like GSP here in Greenville. As reader Q notes: “in general, small town airports are just a vastly more pleasant experience than the big ones.” Tops in our survey must be Fort Wayne International, where volunteer greeters meet incoming passengers with free cookies.

Easily the most hated airports are:

  • Los Angeles LAX
    • “Cramped terminals, rude staff, smells like a bathroom, but above all else, it’s a terrible first impression for millions of visitors to the U.S. every year.”—Jordan Hahn
    • “Very hostile and aggressive immigration officers treat incoming visitors on holiday like criminals. Most people I speak to – many of whom travel the world – have a hostile LAX story. Add 2 to 5 hour wait in line, and many people now avoid like the plague, preferring to travel elsewhere. But the USA advertises for our holiday money! LAX probably costs the USA millions of dollars each year in reduced tourism.”—Billingham
  • London Heathrow (at least almost all of Heathrow)
    • “It is badly laid out, confusing, poorly signed, the staff don’t care and you just seem to end up queuing everywhere!”—Adam
    • “That 1970s carpet is really in need of an overhaul”—Chantal
    • “I never felt like an airport was so out of date or that the staff were so unhelpful as was at this airport, it actually makes me not want to go back to London by plane.”—Alyssa
    • “Old and dingy, and seems to exist solely as a way of selling retail space.”—David Keavany
  • Chicago O’Hare
    • “O’Hare has horrible function with little in the way of form.”—Matt
    • “O’Hare is my least favorite airport, because it is so big and sprawling and complicated, and it’s really hard to figure out where you’re supposed to go. Even when you finally do, it takes SO long to get there. Connecting in O’Hare is hard because you don’t know if it’ll take a million years to get from one gate to the next.”—Mandy Keyes
  •  Miami
    • “Complete hell. Lines are long (and slow), it is very crowded, immigration is slow, and it has a faint smell of mold everywhere.”—Ken
    • “My least favorite US airport. Feels like a huge bus station. The traffic flow for entering international passengers is a complete joke; you are following painted yellow lines on the floor. The food is terrible, and the decor is 70s tile, with little to no carpet, so it is LOUD. Ugh.”—Syd Polk
  • Atlanta
    • “Huge, confusing and often jam-packed with people.”—Moe Khalel 

And there were widespread pans of the three New York airports. Tom Fox says: “crowded, dirty, but that’s New York I guess.”

  • JFK
    • “If you like to starve and have 5 hour delays before your 20 hour international trip, this place is for you! Not to mention it looks like it’s about to crumble down around you.”—KG
  • Newark
    • “For the general chaos, filth and disorganization I have unfailingly encountered every time I’ve been condemned to fly through there”—Jay Lake
    • “Newark is chaos 100% of the time. There’s nothing redeeming about this airport, it exists strictly to move people from City A to City B and doesn’t even do a great job.”—Craig A

And worst of all, the airport this survey suggests is perhaps the most hated in America:

  • LaGuardia
    • “LGA is the worst. It is a “gateway” to the “greatest city in the world” yet is crowded, dirty, and has few amenities. When flights are backed up (frequent) the terminals are packed, there is no seating, and people are sitting on really disgusting, musty carpeting in the corridors. The food is overpriced (quelle surprise) and disgusting, served by personnel who, at best, have little personality and, at worst, are downright nasty (this attitude permeates all levels of personnel at this airport, from the ticket agents, to the TSA workers, to the custodial staff). Its only perk is its proximity to the city. Otherwise, it is a downright embarrassment and reflects the worst of NYC, ca. 1985.”—James R. McWilliam
    •  “Shabby, run-down, dirty, foodless”—William Thompson
    • “The place is a dump and an embarrassment to one of the world’s greatest cities.”—Ephman
    • “It is the sort of place where the rats go on strike because of the filth. What can go wrong when you mix rude incompetent inefficient personnel in a bad environment?”—John McGaw

There is also little love for:

  • Washington Dulles
  • Houston
  • Paris DeGaulle
    • “Last time we were there our plane was delayed and there wasn’t a sit-down restaurant in the entire place. In France!”—Kay
    • “Crowded, bad food, bad logistics, slow, rude and the only airport to actually partially collapse and kill passengers in transit.”—John Dean
    • “Layout and design (lots of naked grey concrete walls) seems to be specifically designed to confuse and depress everyone including the staff. This is probably the reason for them to be very unhelpful if not outright hostile.”—Bjorn

As one of you pointed out, this survey is subject to sampling bias based on the fact that many more of us have been through large, hub airports close to home (e.g. O’Hare, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas) than smaller and/or more distant ones, making it more likely that the major American airports are high on these lists. This proved true—for the worst list. Relatively few people listed the major American airports among the best, with Denver and Charlotte making the best showing.

An interesting case is the airports which figured prominently on both the “best” and “worst” lists. The standout here is Atlanta, with 5 “best” votes and 13 “worsts.” Others with this distinction include Boston, Bangkok, Chicago O’Hare (“I like O’Hare because there is lots of everything – security, space, options for restaurants etc. When you go through O’Hare and then go to someplace like Syracuse or Baltimore or Albuquerque, you realize that even though O’Hare is super busy, at least it knows what to take seriously—Teresa), Dallas, Denver, Dubai, Frankfurt, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Rome, and Washington Reagan. London Heathrow stirred up some enthusiasm for Terminal 5, though it was a trickle compared to the general torrent of abuse. Even JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia got one “best” vote each, and even LAX managed one “not that bad.”

As for me, perhaps I am biased because it was my home airport for 20 years, but I will always have special memories of LAX. It stands out in so many ways: an inconvenient location off a traffic-choked freeway far from the city center; aging, dilapidated and and crumbling facilities; a claustrophobic interior; zero amenities; a setting so overcrowded with people and devoid of decent food options you’ll feel like you stepped into a scene in Soylent Green; dirt (the bathrooms make you want to hold it and wait for the flight), constant construction, and awful transit service. (The light rail line stops 2.5 miles from the terminal, meaning you have to take a slow shuttle bus to get to it, with the only saving grace being the fact that the light rail runs nowhere you would actually want to go so you won’t be taking it anyway. No surprise that only one percent of travelers take transit to the airport.)

Waits at LAX are long, and it is not unheard of for security lines to run out of the security area, down the steps, through the check-in area, and then out of the building to snake back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the terminal. I personally have had to wait in such a line. Eventually, airport personnel came and pulled all of the people with later flight departure times, of which I was one, out of the line. We were rewarded with a long walk to another terminal (no train between terminals at LAX, only an infrequent, maddeningly slow and crowded shuttle bus), going through security there, then being herded out onto the tarmac and onto a packed shuttle bus back to our original terminal. The wait and inconvenience was bad enough, but what turned ordinary hassle into truly Kafkaesque hassle was the fact that airport personnel insulted our intelligence, luring those of us with later flights out of line by telling us we were going to have our screening “expedited,” as if they were really going to expedite the people on the later flights. And believe me, there were no free cookies for our trouble.

Thanks to those of you who wrote in!

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  1. Jeff Raines says:

    San Diego’s airport is right downtown, walking distance in fact. The trade off is that landing there you are literally looking over people’s shoulders in down town office buildings because the planes are coming in below the building roofs.

    I like John Wayne airport in Orange County mostly because of the larger than life statue of the Duke.

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  2. Mike Kennedy says:

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned Birmingham, AL, where the monitors have been known to attack and kill passengers . . .

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  3. Tony says:

    Schiphol ? It’s just ok. My fav’s are Detroit and Hong Kong.

    As a business traveler, i just care about getting in and out fast.

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  4. Kegger says:

    Hong Kong is among the best, especially for business travelers. Plenty of food, free wifi, well organized and great shopping before you go.
    Singapore is also very good, part of the problem with many US airports is all the terminals which make transfers inconvenient.
    Someone also mentioned Detroit, I was pleasantly surprised on my most recent visit there, although some of the waiting areas at the gates are too small to contain the crowds.
    JFK and Newark are not among my favorites.

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  5. John says:

    You forgot Toronto. The worst airport I have faced since Jakarat in the early 90s

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  6. Jay Palter says:

    Love the piece, but not a mention of YEG, AKA Edmonton, to be found. (You know, in Alberta…Canada. The northern-most major city in North America?) Anyway, Edmonton has been investing in redevelopment of it’s airport for several years and the result is one of the best in North America.

    Aside from the good coffee shops and dining choices, Edmonton has commissioned some of the finest artworks that you’ll find in any airport in the world. My personal favourite can be found on the way to the US departure terminal at YEG. Here are the details – http://www.flyeia.com/community/art/signature_collection/erin_pankratz-smith.aspx

    Come visit us in YEG one day and experience for yourself one of Canada’s (and North America’s) best kept secrets. If you can’t make it, check out #YEG in the Twittersphere.

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  7. Karen says:

    No Hong Kong? Pity.

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  8. Vin says:

    The only things I really expect from an airport are a place to get a bite to eat, a place to get a book/magazine/stick of gum for the flight, a comfortable-ish place to sit, enough space that the whole terminal doesn’t feel like a giant, packed subway car, and reasonable modicum of cleanliness. Anything else is gravy.

    The places that have fallen short of my not-too-high standards are: the Delta terminals at JFK and LGA, Heathrow, Berlin-Tegel and Sao Paulo-Guaralhos. Everything else has been OK. SFO and Charlotte are pretty nice.

    The Delta terminal at JFK is the worst of all those – it’s absolutely horrible. It’s as crowded as a subway station, there’s nowhere to sit, all stores are jam-packed, the roof looks like it’s about to collapse. However, I’d like to note that JFK varies a lot depending on the terminal. Terminals 5 and 8 are mostly fine, albeit with long security lines, Terminal 4 is actually kind of nice.

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    • John says:

      Is it possible that the Delta terminal at JFK is worse than the Virgin America terminal there? Awful, just awful in terms of security lines, coordination, seating, concessions, comfort, etc.

      On the plus side, Delta’s opening a new JFK terminal next month… which if the Jet Blue terminal at JFK and Virgin terminal at SFO are any guide, will be a huge improvement.

      And to those complaining about LAX, it’s being wholly redone.

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    • Paul says:

      “The only things I really expect from an airport are a place to get a bite to eat, a place to get a book/magazine/stick of gum for the flight, a comfortable-ish place to sit, enough space that the whole terminal doesn’t feel like a giant, packed subway car, and reasonable modicum of cleanliness. Anything else is gravy. ”

      Agreed, and I’ve found very few terminals in the U.S. that meet even those modest requirements.

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