Airlines have taken a lot of heat over bad customer service, but as I was waiting for a flight at La Guardia Airport this summer, I realized that the stress of flying sometimes starts at the terminal curb.
It took more than half an hour to get through security, and once I got to the overcrowded gate — after a stop in a less-than-clean bathroom — the cacophony of competing announcements, a blaring television and a passenger’s music player blasting without headphones was deafening, especially at 9 a.m.
But when I landed at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, the highest-ranking large airport in this year’s J. D. Power & Associates North America customer satisfaction survey, it was as though I had arrived in another country. The main terminal, finished in 2002, is spacious and full of light, with plenty of comfortable seats at each gate and a wide choice of restaurants.
Stuart Greif, vice president of the global travel practice at J. D. Power, said the contrast between the two airports illustrates the widening spread between the best and worst domestic airports. That’s partly because airports like La Guardia are showing their age, but it also indicates that some airports are taking the time and expense to focus on passengers’ needs.
“It’s about getting the basics right,” said Mr. Greif, who mentioned adequate seating, speedy baggage claim, clear signs and smooth traffic flow as some things airports can do to improve the passenger experience. Besides “Turn down the volume!” here are a few suggestions (post your own on the comments page if you’re inspired to chime in).
Don’t keep us in the dark
One thing that mystifies me is why airports and airlines don’t work together to provide information on ticket confirmations or check-in reminders about services available at airports. Why not tell passengers headed to, say, Minneapolis, that there’s a new Surdyk’s wine bar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, or Indianapolis-bound travelers that there is free Wi-Fi at the airport there? (Check out wififreespot.com/airport.html for a directory of airports that offer free Internet access, organized by state.)
Right now, passengers have to seek out an airport’s Web site to find these highlights, which is worth doing, even just to view terminal maps or get updates about construction that might affect traffic in the area. Flightstats.com lets you look up an airport to see information about flight delays, which is often more accurate than the data airlines share.
It goes without saying that passengers would appreciate more timely flight updates throughout the airport, but Mr. Greif had another good suggestion: posting estimates in baggage claim areas about how long it will take before each flight’s luggage appears.
“When you set expectations and you explain reasons, satisfaction tends to improve,” he said. Yet travelers tend to live in the opposite of our TMI world: we get too little information.
Spruce up the bathrooms!
One of my pet peeves is the bathroom automation trend, which would be fine if the sensors actually worked when you waved your hands wildly to get a trickle of water or a squirt of soap — but they often don’t. As Jerry Seinfeld joked in a monologue I found on YouTube: “What is the story on the sinks in airport bathrooms, that they will not give us a twist-it-on, twist-it-off human-style faucet? Is that too risky for the general population?”
Curtis Fentress, an architect who has designed many of the world’s top-rated airports, shared an anecdote about the purse of a government official falling into the sink and activating the faucet during the 1995 opening celebration for Denver International Airport, which he designed. He said that automation technology is improving, adding that his company — which recently designed the new terminal at Raleigh-Durham International Airport — spends a lot of time thinking about bathroom usability, lobbying for bigger stalls that can accommodate luggage, as well as shelves in the stalls and near the sinks.
“The last thing you want to do when you go in a public bathroom is to set your purse or briefcase down while you wash your hands because the floor often has water all over it,” he said, mentioning the placement of paper towel dispensers and trash receptacles as other details that affect bathroom cleanliness. (In that respect, passengers are partly to blame for the sorry state of airport restrooms these days. No wonder they’re taking the paper towels away.)
Let us rest
For the new Terminal B at San Jose International Airport, Mr. Fentress said his company designed chairs with electrical outlets, so passengers don’t have to jockey for scarce outlets along the walls to charge a laptop or a phone.
But Foy Allen Edelman, a cookbook author from Raleigh, N.C., had another suggestion: how about installing reclining chairs that have a compartment underneath where you can stash a small carry-on bag?
“If you could go to a place that’s quiet and where you could lock up your valuables and rest, I would pay for that,” she said.
While airline lounges generally offer day passes to nonmembers for around $50, they usually close at night, and it does seem that a reasonably priced place to nap is something many travelers would pay for. If you do get stuck, SleepingInAirports.net offers useful tips on where to snooze, and shows photos of free reclining chairs at airports in places like Singapore and Seoul that put United States airport seating to shame.
Make it local
Another common complaint is that many airports feel generic, full of chain restaurants and retail outlets, rather than local establishments selling or serving regional specialties.
“It’s as though they’re all up in the air attached to each other,” Ms. Edelman said. “They’re disconnected from the community.”
Some airports are making more of an effort to introduce local cuisine, like San Francisco International Airport, which has outposts of local favorites including Just Desserts, Boudin Bakery and Firewood Café. But it takes some research to find information on the best places to eat, which is worth doing before you land. Yelp and AirlineQuality.com both offer consumer reviews of airports that often include restaurant picks, and the business travel writer Joe Brancatelli recently offered a roundup of the best airport dining options in the United States on Portfolio.com that includes tips on where to find local fare.
Mr. Fentress mentioned that Vancouver International Airport has what strikes me as a brilliant idea: a bar in the baggage claim area, which might entice more friends and family to agree to the airport pick-up chore.
“You can sit there and have a beverage and wait for your friend,” he said. “Why that doesn’t catch on more in the U.S., I don’t know.”
This story, A passenger's airport wish list, originally appeared in the New York Times.