Priceonomics

Airports are a tempest of emotions. They can be the source of deep frustration due to long lines, security, and delays. But they are also a place where one can be reunited with family members and friends, or even find romance (at least, in our cultural imagination).

Of course, not all airports are the same. Do certain airports engender significantly more positive feelings than others? 

We were curious about just which airports are most hated and beloved. In order to analyze this, we examined nearly 17,000 reviews of more than 700 airports on the airport ratings website Skytrax. These reviews -- which come from citizens of over 100 different countries -- include ratings of various aspects of the airport experience, as well as written comments.

Though Skytrax offers their own ranking of the world’s best airports based on a “comprehensive” assessment that goes beyond user reviews, we decided it would be interesting to take a deeper look at the ratings users input on the website. We use this data to reveal how users rated 71 major airports on overall quality, length of lines, cleanliness, and shopping amenities (due to having too few reviews, many airports are not analyzed). These ratings come from 2007 to 2015 and are publically available.

The people who visit the Skytrax website to write airport reviews are certainly not a representative sample of airport users. After reading through many of the comments, this author is confident that these survey takers are an unusually passionate bunch (the words “shameful” and “disgraceful” are frequently used). Yet their responses are quite similar to Skytrax’s rankings. Six of the top ten airports on Skytrax’s comprehensive list also appear in the top ten of a list created by simply averaging user ratings.

Overall Ranking of Airports

One of the lush rest areas at Singapore-Changi Airport

We begin by ranking airports based on “overall rating.”  Reviewers are asked to rank airports on a one to ten scale. The average score across all ratings is 4.3. The following table shows the 20 highest rated airports by Skytrax users.

The Singapore-Changi and Incheon (located in Seoul, South Korea) airports stand out on this list, with overall rankings almost one point higher than all the others. Some of the comments from users are positively rapturous.

A reviewer of Singapore-Changi Airport, from 2014:

Absolutely superb. Like a 5-star experience. The security staff are so polite...Everything is first class here.

Another, speaking of Incheon Airport in South Korea, from 2015:

I can't speak highly enough of this airport. The classical concerts cultural demonstrations and lounge areas are fantastic. Try the croque monsieur at the snack bar at Rest and Relax.

Most airports do not receive such praise. The next table displays the 20 airports that received the worst ratings.

By Skytrax user reviews, Dalaman Airport (located in Dalaman, Turkey) comes out as the world’s worst major airport. Many users complain about the “outrageous” price of food, and one reviewer goes so far as to claim his experience of this airport ruined his holiday in Turkey.

American airports generally rank poorly. Fittingly, The Economist has referred to American airports as “shabby” and unworthy as an entrance to the country.

Of the ten American airports in our rankings, none does worse than Newark Liberty International. Travel and Leisure magazine referred to the check-in and security lines at Newark Liberty “miserable”. One Skytrax reviewer poetically condemned the airport after spending two and a half hours in immigration: 

“...Hang your head in shame Newark. You are not part of the American dream, in fact you are a nightmare to all that cross your threshold.”

The highest rated American airport is San Francisco International (SFO). Outside Magazine agrees with these users, also naming it the “Best Airport” in the United States, highlighting its “abundant light”, Yoga room, and LEED Gold Certification.

The Waiting Game: Ranking Airports by “Queuing Times”

The passport control line at the Rome Airport

Perhaps no aspect of air travel is more stress inducing than waiting in lines. Check-in, security, and customs are all opportunities for substantial unexpected delays.

On a 1 to 5 scale, Skytrax survey takers are asked to rate their experience of waiting in lines at that airport (referred to as “Queuing times” in the survey; Skytrax is a British company). The average ranking is 2.7.

Given the importance of short lines to the overall experience of an airport, it is no surprise that 15 of the top 20 airports in waiting times are also in the top 20 overall. 

There are some airports that perform exceptionally by waiting times, but not by other measures. For example, the Kiev-Borispol Airport in Ukraine, which is a middling airport by overall rating, ranks 12th by waiting time. One user explains that the airport is quite good at ushering airport goers to their terminal, but that a huge “drawback” is the lack of entertainment.

The Edinburgh Airport, which by most measures is ordinary, is one of the ten worst airports when it comes to lines. Many of the complaints about this airport concern long lines at check-in and security. A British holiday goer complains:

What has happened to Edinburgh Airport check in procedure? Not just one queue but 3 queues to check in?... Horrible experience. Even the staff seemed confused at the level of pandemonium. Who's idea was this fiasco?

So Fresh, So Clean: Ranking Airports By Cleanliness

The spick and span Beijing Airport waiting area.

Given the ample opportunities for spreading sickness and the need to use public restrooms, many travellers are particularly concerned with the sanitation of airports. 

Skytrax survey takers are asked to rate the cleanliness airports on a one to five scale. The average ranking for all cleanliness reviews is 3.4. This time, Incheon manages to squeak ahead of Singapore-Changi for number one, though only by decimal points.

The Beijing Airport, which is in the bottom half of major airports by overall rating, jumps all the way up to 10th by cleanliness. A city historically known for its dirtiness, the airport seems to be a beacon of hygiene. This cleanliness performance is particularly impressive when you consider that Beijing Airport is the second busiest in the world.

Liverpool airport, which survey takers generally find average, falls all the way to second to last by cleanliness. Only Sharm el-Sheikh Airport in Egypt performs worse. In 2012, one user lamented:

The [Liverpool Airport's] corridors and walls are disgracefully dirty and practically every ventilation grill duct or fan is surrounded by thick dirt and grime… not only was everything dirty but the stale smell was more like a cattle market… Is this the Olympic year when we are supposed to be show piecing Britain? I hope none of our foreign visitors decide to come via Liverpool.

Shop ‘til You Fly: Ranking Airports by Shopping Opportunities

Shopping at the Amsterdam Airport

In 1947, the world’s first duty-free shop was opened at the Shannon Airport in Ireland. From that time, airport retail has grown into big business. There was nearly $50 Billion in global duty free sales in 2014. People now expect to have good shopping opportunities at airports.

Survey takers are asked to rate “Airport shopping” on a one to five scale. The average rating for shopping reviews is 2.8.

Once again, Singapore-Changi comes out on top. The reviews are mostly glowing, pointing out the “affordable” range of shopping options, and the ability to do duty free shopping online before arriving at the airport, where the goods may be picked up.

You might think Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which ranks poorly generally, might at least do better on the shopping metric. In fact, it does even worse. Many reviewers bemoan the lack of shops. One reviewer says there are “No shops worth looking at”. Another, who was looking to get in a little shopping, called it the “most boring terminal ever experienced.”

Which Country’s Citizens Give the Highest Rankings

One concern about these rankings is that if individuals from a certain country tend to give higher rankings, than this might skew the results for certain airports. We ran some statistical models to check whether this substantially impacts the results, and overall, it does not. 

But there were several airports whose rankings are inflated by the generally positive attitude of that country’s survey takers. For example, the Delhi International Airport ranks 4th in the overall ratings. This ranking would probably be a bit lower if fewer of the reviewers were from India and Bangladesh, where reviewers seem to be unusually positive.

The following table shows the 10 countries with the most positive reviewers. We’ve only included countries that had over 20 reviewers. The expected rating accounts for the fact that people in certain countries are more likely to go to particular airports, so it is context neutral (for you statheads, we used a hierarchical linear regression).

The airport goers of other countries are more critical. For example, people from Ireland who took the Skytrax survey generally gave lower ratings than the average survey taker.

***

Examining airport reviews is a reminder that context and priorities can cause one person’s heaven to be another’s hell. A good example are two contradictory reviews of San Francisco International Airport.

An unhappy British reviewer writes:

SFO is by far the worst airport for domestic travel. The only thing positive is that BART runs there. The food choices are limited. No services for the stranded traveller. Dirty and dark… Leaving TSA reps are the rudest in the county.

A delighted American says:

Great art/culture exhibits in the terminals. There was one showing the history of turntables when we arrived - we stayed to look before picking up our car! Good food options for the vegetarian which is unusual. Frozen yoghurt too! The monorail is fast frequent and clean. It's not a far drive into the city (20 minutes or so) and the BART is also very convenient to downtown…

For almost every airport, the experiences are wide ranging. Air travel is often a time of high stress and this can lead to intense reactions to airports both positive and negative. Our research suggests you can mitigate the likelihood of a negative reaction by flying through Singapore or Seoul, and avoiding most American airports.

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This post was written by Dan Kopf; follow him on Twitter here.



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