11.22.09

Airports From Hell

This weekend's record-breaking snowstorm crippled airports from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia to New York City. Just in time for holiday travel, The Daily Beast definitively ranks the nation's best and worst airports. Delays, accidents, security lines, tarmac nightmares—how does your hub fare?

Not all airports are created equal. Some all but assure you’ll get to your parents’ house seamlessly, while others increase the likelihood of spending Christmas morning in the lounge of your connecting airport. Equally important, the airport experience can either make flying tolerable or as pleasant as a root canal.

Which is America’s Worst Airport? How does your hub fare? Click the image for the full rankings.

The Daily Beast set out to definitively sort the best and the worst, undertaking a comprehensive study that heavily factored in on-time arrivals and departures, and also examined safety records, tarmac nightmares, airport accessibility, the baggage process, security waits, and amenities.

The answers defied easy categorization. The top three—Houston’s Bush Intercontinental, Los Angeles’ LAX and Phoenix’s Sky Harbor—are the kind of big airport hubs people tend to dread. The bottom of the list, meanwhile, is full of several airports that have sometimes been considered state-of-the-art.

Not every problem is the airport’s fault. A Federal Aviation Authority computer glitch last Thursday caused backups at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and other airports around the country, as did a similar glitch in August 2008. Weather, too, can be a major cause of delays. (No wonder that our top three airports are also in temperate climes.)

But sometimes delays are indeed attributable at least in part to airports and airlines that overbook flights. “The number of times I’ve taken off on time at La Guardia or JFK in the late afternoon I can count on one hand,” says Rudy Maxa, the travel writer and public television and radio host. “All you have to do is look at the airline schedule and see the number of flights that take off at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. at Chicago O’Hare. You know it’s physically impossible to have that many flights take off.”

Delays happen everywhere, which is why we also looked at amenities think like food, clean bathrooms, and other pick-me-ups. Air travelers passing through the largest U.S. airports claim quiet space and wifi Internet access as their top amenities priorities, according to a J.D. Power and Associates study from last year. “There are some really beautiful airports in the world,” says Gary Leff, who writes the View from the Wing blog. “Most of them are not in the United States.”

“All you have to do is look at the airline schedule and see the number of flights that take off at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. at Chicago O’Hare. You know it’s physically impossible to have that many flights take off.”

Here’s how we did our ranking. First, we limited ourselves to the 27 American airports that had one million or more total aircraft operations from 2006 through this summer. So to the chagrin of those partial to Hyannis, White Plains, or Bozeman, we’re just looking at the big boys.

These airports were then ranked in seven categories, with weighting as noted below.

• One-time departures (25 percent) and arrivals (25 percent), as measured in Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, were the two largest components, and rightly so. A flight that arrives on time is almost de facto a good one. 

• We also wanted to see how those airports performed when it counted. We used Thanksgiving 2008 on-time performance, courtesy of BTS data, as a proxy for all holiday travel, and weighted this at 10 percent.

• We also determined 10 percent of the ranking by comparing the average security wait time from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., leveraging the data from Flight Explorer.

• With tarmac nightmares increasing, we allocated 10 percent to measure who refuses to play the hurry up and wait game. Any flight sitting on the tarmac more than three hours earned demerits; a ratio was calculated on a per-flight basis. The data, from August 2008 to September 2009, also came through the BTS.

• Incidents and accidents made up a critical 10 percent. Why so little for the most crucial responsibility in aviation: getting you home safe? Most—though far for all—accidents are not attributable to the airport in question. This was measured on a per-flight basis.

• The final 10 percent, amenities, measured how good an experience at an airport visit can be. For this, we leveraged the JD Power and Associates 2008 North American Airport Satisfaction study, which asked flyers to rank airports based on: airport accessibility; baggage claim; the check-in and baggage check process; terminal facilities; security check; and food and retail services.

Clark Merrefield was the chief researcher for this ranking, assisted by Lauren Streib.