Do America’s Airports Really Suck?

A Delta jet lands as another prepares for takeoff at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport July 16, 2008

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In a press conference today, President Obama referenced the fact that the most recent SkyTrax ranking of the top 100 airports in the world says that zero U.S. airports make the top 25. Our best airport, coming in at No. 30, is Cincinnati. Call it coastal bias if you want, but my instinct is to be suspicious when I hear that America is uniformly terrible at something and the one exception is in Cincinnati. 

Peer into the methodology, and you’ll see that the World Airport Rankings is based on a survey that doesn’t appear to be particularly rigorous or scientific in its sampling. But even if SkyTrax does have a valid statistical sample of people who pass through Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport and a valid sample of people who pass through Copenhagen Airport and a valid sample of people who pass through Singapore Airport, they still end up comparing apples to oranges. What if Asian air travelers are systematically more upbeat about the experience than North American ones, perhaps because faster-growing and recently poor Asia isn’t so jaded about the miracle of flight? Would it shock you if I were to hypothesize that Midwesterners are less whiny than than folks living in the Northeast and that may help account for Cincinnati’s high ratings?

My general view of airports is that it’s important to be clear about what you’re talking about. It’s typically easier to make connections at small airports, and uncrowded airports are more pleasant than packed ones, but the purpose of an airport is for people to fly there so asking everyone to build small empty airports is a bit weird. If you go to rankings by size, I think things get more sensible. San Francisco is deemed the world’s second-best airport in the 40 million to 50 million passenger bracket while Cincinnati is No. 2 in the 5 million to 10 million passenger bracket. If you’re trying to say Cincinnati is “better” than SFO, the fact that 30 million to 45 million extra people are served by SFO in any given year seems relevant. What’s genuinely impressive is that Singapore manages to earn top marks while also operating a very large airport. Never having been to Singapore, I can’t really comment on that, but I’m now looking forward to the trip I have planned there in October even more.