How To Fix America's Airports: Five Important Steps

This extended essay describes five things that U.S. airports must do to mirror the great airports of Europe.
By Ethan Finlan | May 11, 2018 |
By Ethan Finlan | May 11, 2018 |
Simon_sees from Australia, Wikimedia Commons

[This article was co-authored by Ian Mitchell. To read his other articles about airports, visit Mitchell's LinkedIn profile. To read Ethan Finlan's other work, visit his Medium profile.]

Flying is glamorous. Taking to the sky is a miracle that happens every other second, every single day. But flying is also anything but glamorous. Every part of the experience evokes disdain, from gloved hand security agents to fussy infants and microwaved meals. But the worst of it is generally found at the place where you get on and off the plane. Long waits, security theater, delayed flights, or bad experiences at extortionate prices due to single-carrier monopolies. There's no doubt, airports are stressful places.


To fly is to experience helplessness. Not only for being shoved through the air inside a metal (or composite) tube at half the speed of sound, but on the ground as well.  The whole experience reminds everyone of factors beyond their control.

Given the right tweaks, however, airports may solve their customers’ worst problems. The catch is that those tweaks involve fundamentally changing the way that American airports function.

LaGuardia Airport is a superb example of everything wrong with commercial aviation in the United States of America.

On paper, it’s incredibly convenient; it’s physically close to Manhattan, and it has frequent flights to major business and leisure destinations. In reality, flying through LGA means experiencing delays, and the buildings where you wait out those delay are in disrepair. Despite a proposed multi-billion dollar upgrade, the airport will not change much.  Some propose extending its runways, but that's not included in the budget.

It's nice to have terminals that don’t leak filthy water onto delayed passengers, and runway expansions might allow for more, bigger, and better planes to land. But neither resolves the major problem. LaGuardia's deceptively convenient location tortuously interferes with some of the world's busiest airspace, creating delays that have a nationwide impact.

Throwing money at the problem won’t help, because funding isn't the problem.

What will work? Let's start by looking at airports that do well. These success stories reveal that a “good airport” system boils down to five basic principles.

Good airports serve regions, not just big cities.

Let's leave New York. But we don't have to go far.

What does someone who lives and works in Trenton have in common with someone who lives in New Castle and works in Wilmington? What do both have in common with someone who lives in Bryn Mawr and works in King of Prussia? They all use PHL.

Airports serve entire regions. So their design and integration with other infrastructure must reflect this.

Access to intercity (and high-speed) rail and coach services does this well. Consolidation of rental car facilities and improved freeway access helps.

A good airport doesn’t just serve its namesake city, it serves an entire catchment area. In one extreme case, Ben Gurion serves the entirety of Israel.

[caption id="attachment_3240" align="alignnone" width="752"]

Basel EuroAirport serves French and Swiss cities. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

The northeastern airfield that does the best job of this is regional even in name:  Baltimore-Washington International (Thurgood Marshall) Airport, situated just under 20 miles from the heart of Charm City and just under 35 from the Capitol Building.

It’s well served by freeway, with the Baltimore-Washington Parkway intersecting multiple east-west thoroughfares, and by mass transit - intercity and commuter trains stop just outside the airport, while trolleys to downtown Baltimore and an express bus to the Maryland suburbs and connecting to DC’s Metro run directly to the terminal. Inasmuch as investments need to be made here, they are in improving frequency to get more out of what already exists, not costly megaprojects.

Good airports are for customers, not for carriers.

Many airports identify with certain airlines. American with Dallas Fort Worth. United with Denver. Southwest with Love Field (their stock ticker is LUV). Alaska with SeaTac. And, most famously, Delta with Atlanta. This is the concept of the fortress hub in action - carriers benefit from long term leases to lock in marketshare at an airport and use their funds to choose their customers, rather than letting customers pick their airline. The purpose is to chase out or even snuff out competition.

There’s some logic to this - since airlines operate on a largely hub-and-spoke model, there are efficiencies to be had by having exclusive access to multiple gates. But try living in the Charlotte suburbs and getting a cheap flight. You might be better off driving to Raleigh-Durham.

And whole markets pay the price when a bust comes. Once major hubs, St. Louis’ Lambert and Kansas City International struggle despite being geographically ideal for a hub (cities near the US center of population).

Gone are the days of 747s touching down at STL. (Image Credit: Jon Proctor, Wikimedia Commons)

Still, Missouri has been downright lucky compared to poor Memphis, which hasn’t had much to show for it following Delta’s acquisition of Northwest and subsequent downsizing. Cincinnati’s traffic languished so long once Delta stepped back that the airport demolished an entire terminal building. Pittsburgh, among America’s largest airports by area and facilities, has dealt with 74 unoccupied gates as a result of US Airways’ abandonment of the hub.

CVG and STL have recovered due to low cost carriers, but there’s a way to introduce more active competition: in lieu of long term leases for slots, anonymous bidding should be held for shorter terms, and carriers should be charged for enplanements based on time spent occupying the gate facilities, not aircraft weight.

YSSYguy, Wikimedia Commons

The current system incentivizes airlines to hog gates with tiny regional jets (flown by poorly-paid pilots), ostensibly serving short-haul destinations, where a bus or train may deliver a passenger just as quickly. But the true purpose of these flights is to stifle competition. A United flight from Newark to Boston keeps Frontier from offering a flight to Denver at a third of the price that United currently charges.

The fortress hub is Stockholm syndrome between airports and airlines. Sure, Delta bullies other carriers away from Atlanta, but doesn't Atlanta need Delta?


In fact, the airline industry is constantly changing, and airports need to allocate slots in a way that embraces, rather than sabotages competition between carriers.

Hubs can and will continue to exist, but carriers won’t exercise total control over airports. Carriers compete, customers win.

On that subject...

Good airports compete.

While airlines should compete for gates and passengers, so too should airports compete for passengers and airlines. A fantastic example of this is London’s system of airports.

High landing fees and limited space at Heathrow and Gatwick encourage airports farther afield to innovate, and serve passenger demand and airline needs, leading to peculiar outcomes like world-class Emirates serving the discount-carrier dominated Stansted.

London’s airports are a marketplace: each airport fills a niche, but in a system which allows for and encourages innovation.

Thanks to high costs at MIA, Fort Lauderdale’s airport began attracting low-cost flights, but attracted attention from legacy carriers and even international airlines.  Today Emirates, Alaska, and Norwegian all serve Spirit’s largest hub.

Contrast this with Los Angeles’ dismal competition.  Ontario, Santa Ana, and Burbank could each compete with LAX for market share - the latter two are on the same crowded highway that passengers from the north and south must traverse to reach LAX.


It’s not for lack of trying - the problem is the current model doesn't provide any room for these airports to become viable alternatives to LAX; they're instead relegated to hosting expensive puddle jumpers to the hubs.

If LAX charged a rate for slots more reflective of market conditions, on the order of London Heathrow’s fees, these airports could function like London’s system.

And with the entire northeast within 235 miles of the Statue of Liberty, airports from New Haven to Baltimore and Portsmouth to Trenton can and should compete for airlines and passengers, and innovate with better prices and services.

Good airports connect.

When you get off of the plane, do you say “Oh great, I’m here! This is my exact destination!” ?

Probably not.

Inevitably, you’re getting off of one vehicle, and onto another. Whether it’s to another airplane, a train, a taxicab, a Lyft, a bus, or even a boat, your next step at the airport should be relatively easy - and it is in Miami. You get off the plane, and a short people mover trip brings you to a landside hub, where you have your choice of Tri-Rail, Metrorail, Metromover, local bus, several intercity bus options, or renting a car from any of the half-dozen agencies that are all present onsite. No shuttles, no terminal confusion, no hurried cell phone conversations under a metal roof.

The best connectivity comes from integration to the existing system, not from megaprojects. Mainline rail is ideal for major international airports, but if there isn’t an intercity or regional line close by, express bus connections to the local transit system do the job well - Dublin Airport provides excellent connectivity to the center city with several, competing buses operating throughout the day.

Good airports are on the way, not in the way.

BWI is accessible to most of the DC/Maryland/Virginia region and lies equidistant to its major cities. Contrast this with Dulles, which isn’t on the way to anything, unless you should happen to be one of the 52,003 proud citizens of Leesburg, Virginia.

DC also offers an example of an airport that is in the way: Ronald Reagan National Airport was nearly shuttered outright after the 9/11 attacks, and its location between two overlapping No-Fly Zones is famously inconvenient. (Until recently, passengers couldn’t use the restroom or even stand within 30 minutes of landing without causing their plane to divert - with a military escort.)

Beyond the airport’s security situation, it occupies prime real estate. Just 10 minutes by Metro from the District’s L’Enfant Plaza, and even closer to the Pentagon, its footprint is slightly larger than the entire World Trade Center Plaza in New York City.


Furthermore, while the District itself imposes height limits independent of the airport, Alexandria County’s building heights are restricted by the airport’s existence. Were Reagan to close, skyscrapers may finally raise alongside the Potomac.

Which airports fulfill these principles?

Two airports stick out: Germany’s Frankfurt Airport and the UK’s Gatwick Airport.

The 4th busiest airport in Europe and 13th busiest in the world, FRA boasts excellent connections to Frankfurt, and much of Western Europe, thanks to being on the major regional rail line to Wiesbaden, connected to frequent local and high-speed rail, plus discount bus services. International carriers like All Nippon Airways codeshare via bus or train to nearby cities. Similarly, Gatwick’s position on the busy line to the southern coast provides multiple trains to London and beyond, and its proximity to the M25 beltway expands its reach.

Both airports compete - LGW with London’s other airports, and FRA with the further afield but LCC dominated Hahn, which benefits from its equidistant position to several cities.

While Lufthansa’s global hub, FRA is not a fortress for any airline, and thusly carriers from Air India to Wizz Air can compete and get slots. Gatwick likewise boasts a variety of destinations on a variety of airlines, without any one airline dominating.

LaGuardia fails all criteria, except competition on the busiest routes. Here, incumbent carriers dominate gate space - it took a major slot swap between Delta and US Airways to enable the former to get to its dominant position at the airport. Even if LGA (and DCA) were less destructively located, their perimeter rules would still stymie competition. With congested road access and barely functional transit options, LGA is close to Manhattan but hard to reach.

Bonus: Great airports are destinations

Beyond all this, Frankfurt Airport hosts one of Europe’s largest office buildings: The Squaire.
Sitting atop the long-distance train station, this building holds more office space than any in Frankfurt itself.

Because a Great airport can be a destination, too.