The 10 Worst Airports in the U.S.
Updated January 14, 2022
The United States is where air travel was born. The United States is also where air travel 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.
But which U.S. airports are the worst of the worst? If you've ever endured a hellish layover you might nurse a grudge against your own specially loathed spot, but to assemble our roundup of the country’s most terrible terminals, we considered several 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 may finally remedy that in late 2022).
PROBLEM: scary location
Some airports seem designed to make prodigal sons and daughters rediscover their religions. Prayer-prompting 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 scariest 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 one of the “safest years 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: flight delays and cancellations, long lines due to understaffing
This Texas behemoth has long been one of the busiest airports in the country—and now it's even busier, thanks to a pandemic-era reshuffling by American Airlines that has sent more traffic to what was already the carrier's main hub. That move, combined with severe staffing shortages, has strained operations. Customer reviews at aviation rating sites like Skytrax are filled with complaints about DFW's long customs and immigration lines, closed or overcrowded restaurants and shops, extended waits at the baggage carousel, lax enforcement of mask rules, and overall disorganization.
Worst of all, the airport ranked third for most delays and cancellations between July 2019 and July 2021, according to an analysis of U.S. Transportation Department data carried out by the Family Vacation Guide. More than 20% of flights at DFW were late or canceled altogether during that two-year stretch.
PROBLEMS: bumpy landings and takeoffs, long TSA lines, parking issues, construction hassle
One drawback to Denver's majestic natural surroundings: something called "mountain wave" turbulence during takeoff or landing at DIA. Here's how the Federal Aviation Administration describes the phenomenon: "When the wind speed is above about 25 knots and flowing perpendicular to the ridge lines, the airflow can form waves, much like water flowing over rocks in a stream bed. The waves form downwind from the ridge line and will be composed of very strong up and down drafts." Translation: You may be all shook up when departing or approaching the airport's runways.
Lately things have been discombobulating on the ground, too. Seemingly never-ending construction projects have turned many terminals into confusing mazes. Unusually long security lines have also been plaguing travelers—a result, according to the TSA, of understaffed checkpoints, security lanes blocked off by construction, and passengers who slow the security process down by trying to carry on prohibited items "like guns" (!). Due to a lack of shuttle drivers, officials have had to close two parking lots as well, adding yet another headache.
PROBLEMS: outdated facilities, limited accessibility
Cleveland’s decades-past-its-prime airport got a much-needed facelift in 2016. But because most of the renovations involved modernizing the main ticket hall’s exterior, they amounted to little more than (literal) window dressing. Many areas are still 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 the area. At least the much-delayed permanent Ground Transportation Center for shuttle drop-offs and pickups no longer requires what feels like a schlep to a different county.
After placing dead last among medium-sized airports in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey in 2015 and 2016, the Cleveland airport has seen an improvement in its popularity rating more recently: In 2017, 2018, and 2019 (the last year midsize airports were ranked), CLE managed to come in next-to-last. So . . . congrats?
PROBLEMS: outdated terminals, traffic trouble getting there
Philly's aging facility came in last place among large airports on J.D. Power's airport satisfaction survey in 2021. Getting there is the biggest problem, J.D. Power analyst Michael Taylor told Forbes. "It’s a hassle," he said. "There is traffic on the way [and] it takes longer to get there. That sets up a lot of anxiety. You're [already] anxious when you arrive. TSA seems to take forever.”
Not all of this is the airport's fault, of course. Major lane closures on swaths of Interstate 95 cause road delays, and police understaffing, which has led to many officers getting pulled from traffic duty, hasn't helped speed things along.
The airport is looking pretty decrepit on the inside, too—in the wake of the J.D. Power results, officials admitted the need for refurbishments. Funds from the federal government's recently passed infrastructure bill should help with that. The upgrade can't come soon enough.
PROBLEMS: overcrowding, delays/cancellations
Pre-pandemic, some 37 million travelers on nearly 900,000 flights passed through this Chicago facility every year. Well, eventually they did. Because the airport was strained beyond capacity and located in a city famously prone to extreme weather conditions involving wind gusts and snowstorms, delays and cancellations were as common as drunk Cubs fans on North Side L trains.
That's one reason why O'Hare ranked lowest in the "mega" airports category of J.D. Power's 2021 customer satisfaction survey (PHL, above, qualifies as merely "large"). But things could be looking up: In December 2021, O'Hare finally completed a 16-year, $6-billion redevelopment plan that should make the place more pleasant and punctual. Fingers crossed!
PROBLEMS: bad customer experience, traffic congestion, confusing layout
Passengers consistently give LAX bad marks. 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.” Ongoing construction projects raise additional hurdles.
On the bright side, many improvements have been recently completed, including the opening of more gates and computerized baggage handling at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, 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 and cancellations, construction, poor ground transportation
A major, multiyear project to modernize LaGuardia has resulted in airier, more contemporary spaces, streamlined check-in areas, upgraded restaurants, and cool features such as dancing fountains synced to music and video projections. On the whole, the new design is a looker—with the possible exception of a hanging art installation (see above) recalling what the coronavirus looks like under a microsope. Trouble is, many gate areas still haven't gotten facelifts yet, so it's likely you'll spend a fair amount of time experiencing the classic, gross LaGuardia experience in the rundown older sections of terminals.
And there's a bigger problem an aesthetic makeover can't fix: chronic flight delays resulting from the perpetually clogged airspace over New York City. From July 2019 to July 2021, the airport had the second-most delays and cancellations in the nation, with 22.52% of all flights failing to be on time. And we're still waiting on a public transit train that goes directly from Midtown Manhattan to the terminals.
PROBLEMS: delays/cancellations, poor amenities, inconvenient location
We're not the only ones who think Newark has the lousiest airport in the United States. In AirHelp's most recent Global Airport Ranking (released in 2019), Newark landed at the bottom of the heap among U.S. airports and in 116th place out of 132 airports worldwide. The ranking was based on delays and cancellations as well as surveys of thousands of travelers who were asked about airport service and amenities.
It's not surprising Newark fared poorly. In the last couple years, the airport had the worst on-time record in the nation, with nearly one in four flights getting delayed or canceled.
We get that has to do in part with the region's clogged airspace. But why does Newark have to be such an unpleasant place to get stuck? In addition to overcrowding and cleanliness issues, the airport ranked last in RewardExpert’s Airport Dining Scorecard, and that was after a renovation meant to improve the food options. 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.
You know things have to be bad when even LaGuardia looks like a better option.