Now that overcrowded airports aren’t something air travelers have to face, Americans are happier flyers.
Passenger satisfaction and experience over the past year is at a record high, according to a recent survey from J.D. Power. The overall customer satisfaction score this year for North American airports hit 784 (out of 1,000), up 22 points from 2019.
Travelers are reaping the benefits that come with lower traffic, such as improved cleanliness, less crowding, lower noise levels, and efficient check-in, the survey found. Ranked among the highest, according to size and passenger capacity, are airports in Phoenix, Dallas, and Indianapolis.
“Compared to the pre-COVID-19 environment when most airports were running significantly overcapacity, the lack of crowds and long lines is actually creating a very convenient experience for travelers right now,” said Michael Taylor, the travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power.
Passenger traffic has rebounded some since March’s massive drop-off that coincided with stay-at-home and shelter-in-place mandates, but air traffic is still down more than 66% relative to 2019, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
Airlines — as well as airport retailers and restaurants — are operating on lower margins. Losses are in the billion-dollar range and in a bid to stop the financial bleeding, American Airlines and United announced plans last month to furlough tens of thousands of workers if no new government aid comes through.
However, both airlines pledged to rollback the layoffs if a new stimulus deal with payroll support can be reached.
The reduced passenger volume is “not sustainable for most airports,” Taylor said.
Fewer people at every pass isn’t the only factor for traveler satisfaction.
The annual study from J.D Power examined six factors (in order of importance): terminal facilities; airport arrival/departure; baggage claim; security check; check-in/baggage check; and food, beverage, and retail.
Airports were then grouped by size: mega (33 million or more passengers per year), large (10 to 32.9 million passengers per year), and medium (4.5 to 9.9 million passengers per year).
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For the mega airports: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport ranked highest, followed by Miami International Airport, and then Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport.
Among the large-sized airports: Dallas Love Field, then John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and Tampa International Airport were the top three.
For medium-sized airports: Indianapolis International Airport, Palm Beach International Airport, and Southwest Florida International Airport ranked highest.
Jet-setters crave airports that feel like shopping malls
The three category leaders — Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Dallas Love Field, and Indianapolis International Airport — are also examples of the integration of retail and transportation, according to J.D. Power. Airports designed to serve as a destination and not simply a transportation hub are favored by jet-setters like travel blogger Gabby Beckford.
Beckford, creator of Packs Light, said she tailors her travel plans around airports that reflect their cities, so travelers on layovers can still get the local flavor even if they don’t set foot outside of the airport.
“I've never actually been outside of the Boulder [Colorado] airport, but I've connected through there more times than I can count,” she said, explaining the stores and decor all mirror Boulder’s “mountaineering-hippie type” flare.
“I feel like I've been to Boulder after visiting so many times," she said.
Whether it’s large installations by local artists, restaurants that serve the local cuisine, or shops that sell local artisanal goods, these touches lure travelers who crave more than nondescript airports full of duty-free shops, national franchises, or luxury stores.
The future of air travel
The travel industry rebound is dependent on leisure travel making a comeback, Taylor explained. For that to happen, passengers need to feel confident in their decisions to board an aircraft.
Beckford, whose livelihood depends on travel, hasn't boarded a plane since March and said her “motivation is not there quite yet” and she’s waiting for the “right opportunity” that will require her to travel.
Over Labor Day weekend, Taylor observed a potential shift in public sentiment when “airport passenger volumes climbed to 40% of year-ago levels.” Travel over the holidays remains the next big test for the industry.
“Both the airport industry and the airline industry are doing everything they can to mitigate the risk,” Taylor said. “But people have to have that faith.”