A bigger airport doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. (Photo: iStock)
By Sid Lipsey for Yahoo! Travel
The holidays mean a great many things: family, traditions, and the re-airing of your favorite Christmas cartoons. But what turns many of us into Grinches is the fact that the holidays also mean flying to see family, blowing half your Christmas shopping budget on your flight, dealing with a swarm of fellow holiday travelers in crowded airports, long lines, and interminable runway delays. Really, there’s only one guy happy about flying on Christmas, but he’s got eight reindeer, an incredibly cool job, and no airports to deal with.
“This is really a gold mine of data that we have from the federal government, but it really wasn’t organized in a way that was useful to travelers,” Cristina Lachowyn, outreach manager on behalf of Travelmath, tells Yahoo Travel. “There was just so much information out there. So we decided to put it all together in a way that would be useful and relevant and easy for people to get an actionable takeaway from.”
Travelmath ranked 322 U.S. commercial airports on a number of categories that can affect your flying experience for better or worse: the percentages of delayed and canceled flights; average number of minutes flights are delayed; average number of minutes flights spend taxiing; the average fares; and the number of TSA claims filed for lost, stolen or broken items. The 322 airports were then assigned an overall ranking based on their scores in those categories.
Because it might be unfair to compare small regional airports with their larger international counterparts (you’re about to see why), Travemath also did a separate ranking of airports broken down into several size categories.
Some may consider ranking airports to be foolish since, good or bad, we have to use airports to go places, especially during the holidays. But keep in mind, many large metro areas are served by more than one airport. You could use these rankings to help you decide to pick a smaller alternate airport for a calmer, more relaxed flying experience.
The worst airports
New York City is a great place to visit. But flying there — not so much. All three of the New York metro area’s main airports ranked among the 10 lowest-scoring airports in the country, with Newark Liberty International hitting rock bottom as the worst airport and LaGuardia coming in second-to-last:
- McGhee Tyson Airport — Knoxville, TN
- Dallas/Fort Worth International — Dallas/Fort Worth, TX
- John F. Kennedy International — New York, NY
- Aspen Pitkin County Sardy Field — Aspen, CO
- Columbia Regional — Columbia, MO
- Northwest Arkansas Regional — Fayetteville, AR
- Chicago O'Hare International — Chicago, IL
- Washington Dulles International — Washington, DC
- LaGuardia — New York, NY
- Newark Liberty International — Newark, NJ
There were two factors that helped anchor New York’s airports to the bottom of Travelmath’s list. One is the shocking number of TSA claims filed by passengers for lost, stolen, or damaged items; JFK was #1 in TSA claims while Newark was #4. Also, New York airports are plagued by longer-than-average times spent taxiing; LaGuardia and JFK were #2 and #3 for longest taxiing time (17.6 minutes and 17.3 minutes, respectively) while Newark was an all-too-shabby #12th).
But let’s not pick on New York. Travelmath’s study finds the worst airports in the country also happen to be the biggest. “The airports that didn’t do so well had so much traffic,” says Lachowyn. “They tended to be the larger airports.” In fact, more than half of the airports that ranked among the bottom 20 in Travelmath’s study serviced more than 10,000 flights. Chicago O’Hare International Airport ranked near the bottom at #319 out of 322; Washington Dulles International was #320; and Dallas/Fort Worth International was #314.
For the best airports, go small… and go west
While the big airports suffered, the small airports did very well in Travelmath’s study. The top 10 overall airports had one thing in common: they’re so tiny that, chances are, you’ve never flown into, or much less heard of, most of them:
1. Canyonlands Field — Moab, UT
2. Cedar City Regional — Cedar City, UT
3. Lewiston Nez Perce County — Lewiston, ID
4. Yellowstone — West Yellowstone, MT
5. Yakutat Airport — Yakutat, AK
6. Pocatello Regional — Pocatello, ID
7. Bert Mooney — Butte, MT
8. Hilo International — Hilo, HI
9. Bethel Airport — Bethel, AK
10. Great Falls International — Great Falls, MT
Travelmath crowns Canyonlands Field Airport in Moab, Utah the country’s #1 airport. The top 20 U.S. airports in Travelmath’s list is dominated by tiny airports, particularly those in the western U.S.: Utah, Idaho, and Montana and WAY out west in Hawaii, and Alaska. Of those top 20 overall airports, all but six of them were also the tiniest, with a flight volume of less than 1,000.
Why did the smaller airports fare so much better? Smaller airports tend to have fewer flights, which generally means there’s less to screw up. “It makes sense overall that it was an airport with lower flight volume,” Travelmath project manager Emily Pierce says about the results, “because they’re going to have less incidents and less delays because they have less flights.”
That’s definitely the case with the #1 airport, Canyonlands Field. That airport’s top ranking in the Travelmath study is due in part to its minuscule percentage of delayed flights (2.92%, second only to Idaho’s Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport), and its having the shortest flight delays in the country. “On average, their flights are leaving six minutes early,” says Pierce. “Another thing that sticks out: their average fares are lower — about $323.”
If you look at Travelmath’s separate rankings where they grouped the airports by size, it becomes even clearer that smaller is better. For the top 10 airports in Travelmath’s Small Airport category (flight volumes of 1-999), the average ranking on the overall airport list airports is #6 out of 322. Move up to the next category — flight volumes of 1,000 to 9,999 — that overall average ranking sinks to 129.3. As you move up the airport size scale, the rankings sink even lower.
All of that explains why the #1 airport in the country is a small airport in Utah. “It was just one of those interesting things that we looked at and thought, ‘Wow, that’s unique!’” says Lachowyn, “One of the beautiful things about data is that it reveals interesting correlations.”
The best of the bigs
Some airports did okay despite their sizes. Seattle-Tacoma International (Sea-Tac) was the highest ranked airport in Travelmath’s “75,000 flights or more” category (Sea-Tac was #113 on the overall list). “Seattle’s ranking was just so much higher than other airports in its class,” says Pierce. “That was one of the main ones that surprised me.”
Another surprise was how Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International proved the exception to the “bigger-isn’t-better” airport rule: it managed to place 4th in the 75,000+ flights category, despite being the busiest airport not only in the United States, but the entire world. “That’s unbelievable to me,” Lachowyn says of Atlanta’s unexpectedly strong showing. “The fares are pretty much in the middle and they have a relatively low number of cancelled flights. That’s gotta be working in its favor.”
Worst customs experience
Travelmath also ranked airports by how long passengers wait at United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoints (because so many airports don’t have customs, these findings weren’t used in the overall airport rankings). The best and the worst airports in this category happened to be in Florida.
The best: Palm Beach International, where on average, passengers breezed through customs in less than six minutes and the maximum wait time was a more-than-tolerable 11.5 minutes. The worst airport for customs was Miami International, where the average wait in customs was about 22 minutes and the average maximum wait was a tortuous 52.5 minutes (another Florida airport, Orlando International, was #4 in the customs wait times category).
The Miami result was one that didn’t surprise Travelmath. “I have flown in and out of Miami a few times internationally,” says Pierce. “In my personal experience [Miami’s airport] seems to be to be a little under serviced, perhaps, and that’s why you see those long wait times. Perhaps more booths or more staff might help but that’s speculation.”
Unlike Travelmath’s customs findings, TSA claims for lost, stolen or damaged items very much did figure in the airports’ overall rankings in this study. No surprise that the five airports with the most reported claims — JFK, LAX, Orlando, Newark and Miami — are among the busiest in the country and among the lowest-ranked in Travelmath’s airport study.
What is surprising, however, is the type of item passengers most commonly report as lost, damaged or stolen. Cell phones? Computers? No and no —sporting equipment was #1, with 705 reports in 2014 (clothing came in #2 while personal electronics and computers were #3 and #4). “I was surprised at that [result] as well,” says Pierce. “I definitely thought it would have been clothing or cell phones or something like that.”
The Travelmath team suspects that since people tend to care more about their expensive sporting gear — perhaps the only way to rattle a laid-back surfer is to damage his favorite board — they’re more likely to file claims if something happens to those items. Says Lachowyn: “Flying out of Palm Beach International, I always see a ton of golf equipment. As we all know, golf clubs are not cheap, so I’m sure people would be more likely to file a claim for expensive golf clubs!”
Don’t be too hard on the big airports
The Travelmath team stresses that, despite their poor showing in the rankings, the big airports many of us will be flying to and from during the holidays face a much higher degree of difficulty in terms of passengers and air traffic. So instead of judging them too harshly, it’s important to grade them on a curve.
“You have so much air traffic and it’s such a huge operation for some of these [big] airports,“ says Lachowyn. "You really got to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.”
But while the bigger airports may be at a disadvantage to the smaller airports in a lot of areas, keep in mind: the bigger airports tend to have much better restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities. Canyonlands Field might be the best airport in the country, but just try picking up a last-minute holiday gift there.