The 10 Worst Airports in the U.S.
The United States is where air travel was born. It's also where it grew up to become a miserable ordeal. Among wealthy nations, the U.S. has some of the worst airports by almost any measure. Inefficiencies, poor design, endless waits, and an overall sense of chaos abound—and that’s just the line for Au Bon Pain at LaGuardia.
But which U.S. airports are the worst of the worst? While every traveler who has endured a hellish layover nurses a grudge against their own loathed spot (please feel free to drop us a line about your experiences), we assembled our roundup of the country’s most terrible terminals after looking at several quantifiable factors, including flight delays, security wait times, customer satisfaction surveys, and the reviews of experts. Read the list now or save it for when your time of departure gets pushed back again.
PROBLEMS: inconvenient location, confusing layout
This is what happens when you let a modernist master design an airport. You get a cool-looking terminal with a façade that elegantly suggests liftoff—and makes very little practical sense. The brainchild of midcentury architect (and featured star in many a crossword puzzle) Eero Saarinen, Dulles may be easy on the eyes, but it does your sense of direction no favors. Getting from one not-quite-connected concourse to another requires navigating a sometimes baffling network of trains and tunnels, devised over time to overcome Saarinen’s original ground transport solution: a fleet of slow, tanklike people movers called “mobile lounges." They’re mostly gone now, to no one’s dismay. Getting to the airport from the city it’s supposed to serve isn’t easy either, seeing as how downtown Washington, D.C. is 30 congested miles away, and the airport still isn’t a stop on the D.C. Metro rail system (though a long-awaited extension of the Silver Line is finally supposed to remedy that by 2020).
PROBLEM: perilous location
Some airports seem designed to make prodigal sons and daughters rediscover their religions. Prayer-prompting scary landings are regular occurrences due to the short runways at Chicago’s Midway, icy and mountainous terrain in Aspen, Colorado, and too-close-for-comfort downtown buildings in San Diego. As a matter of fact, the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a list of “special qualification airports” with hazardous conditions requiring extra-skillful pilots.
The most dangerous of all just might be West Virginia’s Yeager Airport, which sits atop a flattened hill that drops off by 300 feet on all sides. Overshooting the runway could mean going over the edge. What’s more, the mountain is prone to mudslides, like the one in 2015 that sent a chunk of land into the valley below. In 2017—otherwise the “safest year in aviation history,” according to data from the Aviation Safety Network—one of only two fatal accidents at U.S. airports happened at Yeager when a pair of cargo pilots were killed during a crash landing.
PROBLEMS: constant construction, traffic congestion
Fort Lauderdale’s airport is one of the nation’s fastest-growing, straining to accommodate South Florida’s ever-increasing numbers of visiting beachgoers, retirees, and cruise ship passengers. Additionally, the airport has welcomed a huge spike in traffic from discount carriers like Spirit Airlines and JetBlue. FLL officials recognize the need to modernize their aging and overstuffed facility, but that has resulted in seemingly endless construction projects that make the place worse in the meantime due to closed-off areas and limited options for shopping and dining. Likewise, Broward County’s increasing congestion and slow-moving highway projects make driving through the airport's outdated U-shaped traffic pattern, in which all terminals share the same driveway, a never-ending trial of lane closures and bumper-to-bumper gridlock (public transit is scant and unreliable). For all of these reasons—and the country’s sixth-worst on-time arrival rate in 2016—Fort Lauderdale was named the third-most hated airport of its size by passengers in J.D. Power’s 2017 Airport Satisfaction Survey. Talk about growing pains.
PROBLEMS: weather delays, long customs lines
All that visibility-reducing fog rolling in from the bay causes San Francisco International Airport to have more weather delays than anywhere else in the country, according to 2017 U.S. Department of Transportation numbers crunched by the Weather Channel. And the fault doesn’t lie with Mother Nature alone: The airport’s runways are too close together at only 750 feet apart, failing to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirement of at least 4,300 feet between runways for side-by-side landings when there’s low visibility. That shrinks the number of arrivals even further because they have to be staggered. The problem becomes glaring during the busy summer travel season; a 2017 MileCards.com study found that in the previous decade, SFO averaged a dismal 69% on-time arrival rate in the months of June, July, and August—the worst in the nation except for perennial laggards Newark-Liberty and New York’s LaGuardia.
And if you’re arriving at SFO from overseas, get ready for more waiting: A separate MileCards report from 2017 claims that the airport has the second-longest lines at customs in the U.S. (only Orlando’s are worse), with average wait times of 21.84 minutes and wait times of longer than 30 minutes for 31% of passengers. Contrast those numbers with the zippy customs lines in Phoenix, where the average wait is 7.4 minutes and only 5% of passengers have to stand in line longer than half an hour.
PROBLEMS: outdated facilities, limited accessibility
Cleveland’s decades-past-its-prime airport got a much-needed facelift in 2016, just in time for Trump and company to descend on the city for the Republican National Convention. But because most of the renovations involved modernizing the main ticket hall’s exterior, they amounted to little more than (literal) window dressing. The concourses still feel cramped and drab. Concourse D still sits empty and wasted as a result of United Airlines’ decision in 2014 to drastically cut back service to Cleveland. And everybody—especially travelers with mobility issues or lots of luggage—still hates the distant location of the Ground Transportation Center for airport shuttle riders. But let’s be fair: After placing dead last among medium-sized airports in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey in 2015 and 2016, Cleveland Hopkins did see an improvement in its popularity rating after the renovation project. In 2017, the airport came in next-to-last, behind Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport. So . . . congrats?
PROBLEMS: lack of coordination among terminals, flight delays, disappointing amenities
The least horrific airport in the New York City area benefits from comparisons with Newark and LaGuardia, but let’s be clear: None of them is worthy of the metropolis they serve. In JFK’s case, the chief trouble is that each of its six terminals is operated independently, meaning that airlines can’t usually share gates across terminals or coordinate getting their acts together in a crisis. In essence, the place runs like a nation made up of separate states, with no overarching government to keep things running smoothly (which actually sounds like the United States as a whole at the moment, but never mind). This constant mess-in-the-making results in flight delays—JFK was in the bottom five for on-time arrivals in 2016—and slow recovery from weather problems like the January 2018 snowstorm that sent the airport into a state of chaos that lasted for days. (Flooding from a busted water main didn’t help.)
And what’s with the mediocre food and shopping venues? New York is a preeminent destination in both of those categories, yet JFK's duty-free options are paltry compared to what you’ll find in many European and Asian airports, and, as RewardExpert’s 2017 Airport Dining Scorecard points out, eating at JFK usually means paying exorbitant prices at a chain restaurant. Only Newark sank to a lower ranking in the food department.
PROBLEMS: overcrowding, delays/cancellations
O’Hare is the second-busiest airport in the country after Atlanta. Each year, some 37 million travelers on nearly 900,000 flights pass through the Chicago facility. Well, eventually they do. Because the airport is strained beyond capacity and located in a city famously prone to extreme weather conditions involving wind gusts and snowstorms, delays and cancellations are as common as drunk Cubs fans on North Side L trains. Even when flights leave on time, passengers can face headaches such as last-minute gate changes, long waits at security checkpoints (though those have improved since their nightmarish highs in 2015 and early 2016), and, in the case of United Airlines passenger David Dao, an actual headache caused by airport police violently dragging him off an overbooked flight in April 2017. O’Hare has finally embarked on a multibillion-dollar plan to expand and upgrade the facility to remain competitive, but completion is years away, and construction is bound to cause inconveniences. Not to mention that projects of this magnitude in Chicago tend to overrun costs and timetables.
PROBLEMS: bad customer experience, traffic congestion, confusing layout
Passengers consistently give LAX bad scores, including an abysmal next-to-last ranking among “mega airports” on J.D. Power’s 2017 survey. As is often the case in Los Angeles, getting there and getting around pose the biggest challenges. Stationed around a double-decker U-shaped roadway that feels about as well-organized as a stampede, the airport has nine different terminals—and may heaven have mercy on you if you need to get from one to another for a connecting flight. In most cases, you’ll have to leave security, walk or ride a shuttle bus (which will only travel counterclockwise, by the way) to the new terminal, where you will once again have to go through security before proceeding to your gate. And by “proceeding,” we mean “running as if pursued by lions.” Forget about spotting much helpful signage along the way, either.
On the bright side, numerous improvements at LAX have been recently completed or are underway, including a terminal expansion, more upscale shops and restaurants, and an automated trolley to the car rental location. But will those upgrades make the place any easier to navigate? And how can parking and traffic congestion ever improve without better public transit options than the string of inconvenient and impractical trains and buses currently required to get from downtown L.A. to the airport?
PROBLEMS: delays/cancellations, poor amenities, inconvenient location
The three major airports closest to New York City—JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia—lead the country in delays and cancellations, and in some ways that’s understandable, given how busy the region’s airspace is and how relatively close together the airports are. That helps explain why one in four Newark flights failed to arrive on time in 2016 (compared to an on-time rate of 87% in Salt Lake City). But why does Newark have to be such an unpleasant place to get stuck? In addition to overcrowding and cleanliness issues, the airport ranked dead last in RewardExpert’s 2017 Airport Dining Scorecard, and that was after a renovation meant to improve the food options. Stranded travelers feeling hungry don't have much to choose from other than chains with low-quality menu items sold at sky-high prices. Getting to and from New York can be an ordeal for tourists, too, requiring either an expensive cab or Lyft ride or two trains operated by two different systems, the AirTrain Network and New Jersey Transit. Tourists who accidentally get to the airport on an Amtrak train instead (an easy mistake to make, because no one warns them) discover the fare is three times higher than the local commuter train.
Basically, the best argument we can make for Newark is that at least it’s not the airport that tops our list . . .
PROBLEMS: Where do we start?
In a rare display of bipartisan agreement, leading figures from both the Democratic and Republican parties—former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, respectively—have separately singled out New York’s decrepit and overcrowded LaGuardia Airport as among the world’s worst. Allow us to pile on. Among the studies and surveys we’ve previously mentioned, LaGuardia is first in delays, third in crummy food, and last in your hearts. The security checkpoint is too small for the number of passengers herded through, so lines easily get out of control. The buildings are crumbling and leaky, and places to sit and charge mobile devices can be few and far between. A major project to modernize the place is in progress, but construction has led to horrendous traffic snarls that have in turn made passengers miss flights. And when the project is finally done in 2021, it’s unlikely that the chronic flight delays will be (or can be) resolved, seeing as how they’re a result of the perpetually clogged airspace over New York City. And there's still no easy way to take public transit directly from Midtown Manhattan to the terminals.
Even so, we'll take whatever improvements we can get.