The best and worst airports of 2022

San Francisco International Airport is unusually quiet, thanks to strict rules about airline advertisements.

San Francisco International Airport is unusually quiet, thanks to strict rules about airline advertisements.

San Francisco International Airport strives to make travelers forget they are in an airport.

The place is strangely quiet, even during rush hour, due to strict limitations on airborne announcements about lost items, gate changes, and boarding parties. The signs urge travelers to wear headphones while going through the terminal and waiting for flights.

Riders can retreat to yoga rooms, a museum, art exhibits, and outposts of local restaurants like Bun Mee and Boudin Bakery, or catch the occasional live music. The new touchless water refill stations have hot, cold and room temperature settings and could soon dispense mineral water for free.

It’s all poor comfort when flights are delayed, a chronic problem given the city’s characteristic fog, but a great airport experience when things are going well. And things have been going unusually well in SFO since travel began to pick up in 2021.

The airport has been operating with on-time rates of more than 80%, 10 points higher than pre-pandemic levels despite significant travel issues in other cities.

The double whammy of more reliable flights and world-class amenities catapulted the airport to the top spot in The Wall Street JournalThe first ranking of the nation’s busiest airports since 2019. Atlanta and Minneapolis rounded out the top three.

Each stands out at a time of turmoil in the travel industry, as crowding, combined with shortages of labor and planes, brings back familiar travel frustrations like long security lines, flight cancellations and expensive plane tickets.

This year’s airport report card ranks the 50 largest airports in the US on 19 factors, from on-time performance and security holdups to JD Power’s customer satisfaction score and airfare prices. Tickets. Reliability is top of mind for passengers and carries the highest weight in our rankings.

Airports are divided into two categories: the 20 largest, by number of passengers, and the next 30, categorized as medium.

Sacramento International Airport, just 100 miles northeast of SFO and a contender for some Northern California travelers, earned first place among midsize airports and highest overall score.

Airport manager Cindy Nichol, who used to work at San Francisco International, attributes Sacramento’s high score to good weather, plenty of runway space and customer service.

Airport landscapers even help direct flyers, she says, earning praise from passengers.

The San Diego and San Jose airports were No. 2 and No. 3 among midsize airports, creating a California trifecta.

The worst performers in the large and midsize classes, respectively, were Newark and LaGuardia Airport. Both are plagued with flight delays and other problems, but they have big plans to fix them.

LaGuardia’s physical makeover is already underway and you won’t recognize the place if it’s been a while. And Newark’s new Terminal A makes its debut in early December.

It says a lot about the complexity of air travel that the airports that are at the top or bottom of our rankings don’t shine or stink in all areas.

San Francisco and Minneapolis were among the highest domestic ticket prices in the country. Washington Dulles, Charlotte, NC, and Salt Lake City topped the list.

Florida airports, which fared poorly overall due to congested airspace, had the lowest ticket prices due to intense competition from low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines.

Let’s also not forget that the industry effectively scores on a curve on many metrics: an 80% on-time rate still means that 20% of flights were late. And the US government’s definition of an on-time flight—those arriving and departing less than 15 minutes late—would make Swiss watchmakers cringe.

San Francisco’s top ranking is sure to be a head scratcher for travelers who have been tarnished there over the years.

But it makes a lot of sense to Sean Swalin, who has only known San Francisco on his off days.

The 49-year-old corporate real estate executive moved to the city from the East Coast during the pandemic and has only rave reviews. He travels weekly and has had only minor flight delays and one cancellation, the latest due to a nosebleed from the pilot.

Mr. Swalin finds it easy to get around the airport from the parking lot to security, and he loves the multiple security checkpoints, which eliminate the bottlenecks that develop at airports with centralized controls.

“It’s a dream,” says Mr. Swalin, whose previous home airports were Philadelphia and Raleigh-Durham, NC.

San Francisco airport director Ivar Satero, who has worked there for nearly 30 years and has been in charge of the facility for the last six, says the airport has made adjustments to reduce delays and cancellations.

These include the adoption of recent Federal Aviation Administration landing procedures that allow the use of both parallel runways in poor visibility and the investment of $10 million in new GPS landing technology.

When bad weather hit one day in early November, the airport handled 37 flight arrivals an hour thanks to new GPS technology, the airport says. He drives 60 per hour on a normal day.

“Five years ago it would have been down to 25 flights an hour,” says airport spokesman Doug Yakel, who worked in operations for Virgin America and United Airlines before joining the airport in 2010.

Mr. Satero says that those systems and other improvements, including the additional gates, will help the airport manage operations when business returns fully, which he hopes is in the next two years.

Before the pandemic, the airport was investing to handle a projected 72 million passengers, up from 58 million at the time. This year some 40 million passengers will pass through.

Mr. Satero said he is encouraged by the smoothness of operations during the morning rush hour, when traffic can be as busy as it was before the pandemic.

It’s questionable whether San Francisco can retain its crown. Airport improvements will continue at the large city-owned airport, but on-time statistics may not hold up.

That’s because the big improvement in reliability hasn’t been driven by airport magic but by a pandemic hangover.

The number of flights and passengers at SFO, where United has a hub, is still well below 2019 in contrast to most major airports. Both metrics fell more than 25% over the year through August, according to airport statistics.

United CEO Scott Kirby calls it the nation’s least-recovered major air travel market.

He blames the slow recovery in travel in San Francisco on tech companies in the region, which haven’t restored business travel to pre-pandemic levels and likely won’t anytime soon, given the recent adjustment. of the belt and the continued Covid restrictions in key Asian markets, especially China.

Hong Kong, the airport’s second-biggest international market after London before the pandemic, recently reopened. Cathay Pacific recently resumed service but with a fraction of its usual flights. Qantas, Air China and China Eastern have yet to return.

Fewer flights means less congestion, plus a cushion when weather or other issues arise. Instead of weather delays stretching past midnight, Kirby says, airlines can catch up more quickly.

He visited San Francisco earlier this month and says employees were enthusiastic about the airline’s performance and hopeful it would continue. “Everything about [the airport] It feels different.”

Mr. Kirby says the lesson from San Francisco’s good performance is that an airport shines when it handles a reasonable number of flights relative to its capacity.

“When they were given a hand of cards they could win, they won,” he says.

When flights are overscheduled, Kirby says, “it’s a guaranteed bad experience for customers.”

Exhibit A, Newark, where United also has a hub.

Kirby has been lobbying the FAA to enforce flight limits at the New Jersey airport and made his own flight cuts over the summer to ease congestion.

Newark airport officials say the number of flights is up to the FAA, and the airport can only do what it can to support operations.

The FAA says it has no law enforcement authority in Newark, and that the demand for takeoff and landing times at Newark is managed through voluntary cooperation and schedule adjustments agreed upon by the airlines and the FAA.

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