Thanksgiving Travel: Why America’s Airports Suck Compared to Asia’s

Dry weather is predicted across the majority of the US on the busiest travel day of the year Wednesday as an estimated 54 million Americans hit the road for the Thanksgiving holiday
Lyod Graham waits for the bus during a snowstorm in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Relax. You’re heading to the airport. What could possibly be stressful about that?

Seriously, more than 30 million passengers are expected to pass through U.S. airports over the Thanksgiving holiday period, and few will relish the experience.

There is no clinical term for the psychological impact of airports. Nor, as far as I can tell, has anyone given it deep study. It’s a very broad condition lacking scientific evaluation—something commonly endured for which no antidote is prescribed.

At least, that seemed the case until now. Apparently the cure is to keep calm. Or, more exactly, to subscribe to Calm, the bromidic app that calls itself “Nike of the mind.”

Calm, a San Francisco-based startup, has more than a million subscribers who are soothed by a daily supply of meditational sessions, sleep aids and journeys into the blissful state of mindfulness. They have just invested $3 million in Xpress Spa, operator of a chain of airport spas. Calm subscribers will get free chair massages while Xpress Spa clients will be introduced to the sedations of Calm in a location that is bound to make them welcome.

So, somebody has found a way to monetize fear of flying. It was only a matter of time.

This comes as, once more, America’s airports have been ranked as some of the worst in the world. In the annual Skytrax score, composed from the votes of nearly 14 million passengers from more than 100 countries, the first U.S. airport to show up is Denver, in twenty-ninth place.

Of course, we don’t really need international polling to tell us that by world standards our airports, like our roads, bridges and railroads, are crap. Anyone who covers aviation, as I do, feels the pain in a personal way: Why is the U.S. incapable of providing and running well the most basic services for one of the greatest advances in travel, the jet age, that was largely an American achievement?

Just take a flight from any of the New York area main airports to airports in Asia and you journey from chaos and dilapidation into what seems like another century.

Five Asian airports top the Skytrax list and Singapore’s Changi International is the world leader for the sixth year running. Number two is Incheon, South Korea.

Now, there is an argument that the U.S. suffers from first adopter drag. Because we pioneered air travel, domestic and international, our airports are a lot older and are in many cases constrained by sites that are too close to urban areas to be able to expand as they need to do to match the seemingly endless incremental growth in traffic.

You can see the logic of this argument when you look at what was, when it opened in 1998, the benchmark for what a modern international airport should look like, Hong Kong International, since then many times voted Airport of the Year.

a view of a mountain: Hong Kong International Airport. View Pictures/UIG via Getty

Hong Kong’s previous airport, Kai Tak, like a lot of U.S. airports, was close to downtown and notoriously noisy and congested. Its replacement was built on a man-made island as part of an immaculately planned integration of the city’s air, road and rail connections, including a tunnel beneath Hong Kong harbor, the world’s longest road and rail bridge and a new mass transit rail line.

Norman Foster designed the 520,000-square-meter passenger terminal, the largest enclosed public space ever built. A central hall forms the stem of a “Y” that enables 38 ground-level gates to be reached swiftly by moving walkways.

But this attention to function went with a recognition that utility alone is not what makes an airport ease the tensions of travel.

a close up of a map: Hong Kong International Airport. View Pictures/UIG via Getty

In the earlier generation of terminals a few shops and restaurants were added as afterthoughts. In the Hong Kong terminal 140 shops and restaurants are integrated into the design and this has had an effect beyond anything that physical structure can achieve—it introduces travelers to East Asia’s service ethic, where grace and efficiency at the airport reflect the hospitality ethic of Asian hotels and other services.

Indeed, the competition among major Asian cities to make airports an extension of their standards of hospitality has meant that Hong Kong, for all its continuing attractions, has slipped to fourth in the Skytrax ratings, with Changi now the benchmark to beat. Changi’s seductions include two hotels, a movie theater, a butterfly garden, and a new hotel and entertainment complex that opens next year.

We can only dream of that kind of race to the top as we travel through U.S. airports that continually serve to define the results of a race to the bottom. TheWall Street Journal has just published its first rankings of the twenty largest U.S. airports. Of these the worst are drearily familiar to regular travelers: LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark, along with Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

There is some hope of improvement. Changes are under way at LaGuardia as part of a $20 billion upgrade of the area’s three main airports. LaGuardia’s new Terminal B will replace the squalid 1960s vintage mess with vastly improved gates, shops and restaurants.

But LaGuardia will remain the victim of its history and its site: in the 1930s it was chosen because it provided the ideal waterside terminal for flying boats, when flying boats seemed to be the future of transatlantic travel. That turned into a liability when the surrounding water limited the length of runways and, therefore, the ability to expand the airport to meet demand.

The reverse of this problem explains why Denver came in top in TheWall Street Journal poll and, albeit at number 29, the best U.S. airport in the Skytrax ratings. Denver, which opened in 1995, is the only major airport in America to be built from scratch since the beginning of the jet age. It is also, by land area, the largest, more than one and a half times the size of Manhattan—but by no means the busiest.

In its first years of operating Denver was something of a white elephant, under-used and unready. It is 25 miles from downtown Denver, and driving out to it could seem like an introduction to the windswept Great Plains rather than to the future of air travel. There were teething troubles with baggage handling and other systems, but in my experience that is a common affliction with all new airports. Now Wall Street Journal readers have awarded Denver their top scores for reliability, value and convenience.

Because it has generous terminal space, Denver has been able to cope better than older and busier airports with the single greatest setback to the ability of airports to ease the tensions of travel: Post-9/11 security lines. When the TSA scanning and baggage check systems were imposed on architecture that was not prepared for them the result was, inevitably, improvisation rather than convenience.

a screen shot of a building: Hong Kong International Airport. View Pictures/UIG via Getty

This is now an ineluctable part of air travel in the U.S. and, more than anything else, it triggers the stresses of air travel right at the threshold of the airports. As a result, our airports have become trapped in what could be called the funnel effect—you start the experience in the funnel of the security line and end it in the frequently chaotic funnel of the boarding gate.

It’s significant that the top three U.S. airports in the Wall Street Journal rankings are all in medium-size cities: Denver is followed by Orlando and Phoenix. These are airports where the space between the two funnels has been made notably stress-free, in Orlando with a terminal culture rich in the Americana of a top tourist destination and in Phoenix because its climate creates few weather delays and cancellations.

Savvy travelers in some of the large urban conurbations have also learned to escape long security lines by using some of the smaller and under-used area airports: Stewart and Long Island MacArthur (formerly Islip) in New York; Bradley International in Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; San Diego, Long Beach; Palm Springs and Burbank in California. All of them have good connections to hubs where, because you are already in the system, you can avoid the security and baggage bottlenecks.

Some airlines have spotted this trend and it is likely that they will feed more flights through these airports.

The reality is that there is no quick fix for the trials of using our airports. Congress and successive presidential administrations of both parties have allowed our travel infrastructure to fall way behind international standards. Any meaningful investment in new runways and terminals would take a generation to have any effects.

It’s also a mistake to believe that sexy new architecture is, in itself, a magic key to a great airport experience. The work of great architects can be undone by bad airport management. A clinically efficient terminal by Norman Foster hasn’t saved the London satellite airport of Stansted being a pain; similarly a beautifully crafted terminal by Richard Rogers has not stopped Madrid’s Barajas airport slumping to a ranking of 43 in the Skytrax rankings.

Unlike any in-place physical structure, people are susceptible to improvement. It may be too glib to say that the people who deliver Asia’s exceptional hospitality culture are mainly responsible for the quality of the great Asian airports. It also took political and commercial vision to see the importance of the role of airports in the way that a whole nation is viewed by others.

But people do make an essential difference. Vancouver is the top ranked North American airport by Skytrax, coming in at 13. It was particularly cited for the friendliness of its staff. In our airports it too often appears that the people we encounter, from the TSA screeners to the airline gate staff, are themselves under such pressure that instead of easing our own tensions they increase them.

Responding to this, the health care consortium Kaiser Permanente is trying out a remedy. It has applied some new cosmetic touches to the TSA checkpoint at the Oakland International Terminal 2, California.

One wall of the checkpoint area has been transformed by a “living green wall.” The wall features “unique plant species that clean indoor air naturally and soothe the ambient environment.”

Furthermore, large white cutout “clouds” are suspended from the atrium ceiling, accompanied by messages on panels throughout the checkpoint urging passengers to “breathe in, relax and thrive.” All this is backed up by “soothing sounds of nature” issuing forth from speakers.

The path to airport serenity begins this easily? I don’t think so.

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