Lonely Planet Writer

America’s small, rarely used airports are the best

A study in the US found out which airports provide the best experience for travellers based on government data, but chances are most people will never need to use them.

Bing map view of the Canyonlands Field Airport in Moab, Utah.
Bing map view of the Canyonlands Field Airport in Moab, Utah. Image by Bing Maps

TravelMath, an online trip calculator site, used government data to rank airports based on impacts on travellers like flight delays, cancellations, lost baggage, and fare prices. The list ranks 322 commercial airports, but unless you’re an avid air traveller in the US, you may not have even heard of many of them.

The total ranking was topped by small airports in the Western region of the US, with the first to tenth ranking as follows: Canyonlands Field in Moab, Utah; Cedar City Regional in Utah; Lewiston Nez Perce County in Idaho; Yellowstone in Montana; Yakutat Airport in Alaska; Pocatello Regional in Idaho; Bert Mooney in Montana; Hilo International in Hawaii; Bethel Airport in Alaska; and Great Falls International in Montana.

In last ten places (from 313 to 322) were: Mc Ghee Tyson, Dallas/Fort Worth International, John F. Kennedy, Aspen Pitkin County Sardy Field, Columbia Regional, Northwest Arkansas Regional, Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International.

Newark Liberty Airport.
Newark Liberty Airport. Image by Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup / CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s pretty clear from the report that bigger airports present bigger problems for travellers, and Travelmath notes that the higher the airports’ traffic, the more their ranking suffers. However, for most people travelling in the US or abroad, the big airports are unavoidable to get to their destination.

For that, Travelmath further broke down the numbers based on the number of flights heading through the airport. The airports in the largest category – with more than 75,000 flights – were ranked from first to tenth as follows: Seattle-Tacoma International, Minneapolis-St Paul, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, McCarran, Detroit Metro Wayne County, Orlando, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The results appear to be the worst for travellers heading in or out of New York, as three of its major airports – La Guardia, Newark and John F. Kennedy – landed in the bottom 10 of all 322. The airports with the most claims filed to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – which is used for claims of lost or stolen property – were: John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles, Orlando, Newark Liberty, Miami, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, Logan, McCarran and Phoenix Sky Harbor. The data used by Travelmath comes from the Bureau of Transportation, which was gathered from 1 January to 31 August 2015.

However, another study, the J.D. Power 2015 North American Airport Study, says that passengers’ overall satisfaction with their airport experiences has gone up over the past five years.

Air passengers explo
Baggage claim. Image by Kenneth Lu / CC BY 2.0

The study, which is in its tenth year, studies traveller satisfaction with large and medium-sized airports in North America by looking at terminals, accessibility, security, baggage claim, check-in and terminal shopping. It ranks satisfaction of a 1,000 point scale and this year, the average travellers’ experience was ranked at 725. That’s an increase from 690 in 2010.

“Most airports have really made a tremendous shift over the past six years and are now focused on managing the end-to-end experience for their travellers”, said Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power in a new release. “It’s no longer just about getting travellers from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible; it’s about making the airport experience enjoyable”.

Portland International Airport ranked the highest in satisfaction in the study, with a score of 791, followed by Tampa International with 776.