The report cards are in: U.S. airports got a D+

in August 9th, 2021

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Hate going to the airport? Might be because you're at one in America. Not only are U.S. airports among the world’s worst, but not a single one appears in the top 30 best airports ranked by aviation group Skytrax. And earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s aviation system a D+. What’s driving these results?

  • Long lines that have been consistent since 9/11, when enhanced security required use of already limited space on TSA checkpoints and baggage screening systems.
  • More recently, pandemic-driven health screening checkpoints further complicated how airport space is used and navigated. Unruly passengers only make matters worse.
  • Overcrowding and delays due to more flights scheduled than gates available. A single delay can also have a compounding effect. For example, one late plane can miss its entry to a gate, end up having to taxi on the runway, and then delay boarding for that plane’s next flight — which brings that delay along to its new destination.

Ultimately, these issues are rooted in old airports that haven’t been properly maintained. Airport construction first took off after WWII with federal grants, building for the size and traffic needs of that time. As the number of passengers doubled between 1954 and 1959, airports struggled to keep up, facing a slew of problems such as noise complaints and small storage facilities that couldn’t hold newer jets. Now, a group of Republican senators are trying to play catchup through a bipartisan bill that includes $25 billion dedicated to increasing efficiency, from check-in to boarding, and making air travel a little greener. Delays are expected, though, as progressive Democrats push for the larger infrastructure plan to include funds for health care, education, and climate change.

How are airports in other countries better? While the U.S. leaves airport responsibilities to state and local governance, the same is not true internationally. For example in China, the federal government handles all financing, planning, and construction. What’s more, some of the top ranked airports are themselves a destination worth visiting.

  • Singapore has been number one in the world for eight years. In addition to endless food and shopping options, travelers love its orchids, butterfly garden, and rooftop pool.
  • Tokyo comes second with its advanced and efficient system linking terminals within the airport. Travelers also enjoy several open-air rooftop restaurants.
  • Amsterdam ranks ninth, featuring a free art museum before heading to one of the 223 gates spread around a single terminal.

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