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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.

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:

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:

In North America, people gushed over Vancouver International:

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:

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

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

There is also little love for:

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!