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In defense of those US airports that are getting bashed for being “third-world”

LaGuardia Airport
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hate can be a powerful tool to unite the masses.

Just ask Donald Trump. He no doubt had even some of his harshest critics nodding along in agreement when, at the Sept. 26 presidential debate, he served up a takedown of US airports, calling out the New York area’s widely loathed trio.

“Our airports are like from a third-world country,” he said. “You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark, and you come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible—you come in from China, you see these incredible airports, and you land—we’ve become a third-world country.”

Some of the newer international airports and terminals in resource-rich developing nations are incredible because they were planned during a period of strong revenue from oil and other commodities. The UAE and Qatar, for example, have been able spend big on infrastructure with large oil-fueled budgets, although the hurt from the two-year slump in oil prices is starting to show in both nations. They also have lower labor costs than the US does. And construction firms operating there have been accused by rights activists of subjecting migrant construction workforces to poor conditions, Citylab pointed out.

Indeed, many new projects that began when commodities were much more valuable seem impractical now. But they still make the US’s facilities look shabby by comparison.

Gas-rich Turkmenistan just unveiled a $2.3 billion international terminal, in the shape of a flying falcon, at the airport in Ashgabat. Never mind that the country receives few tourists. 

On Skytrax’s 2016 list of the world’s top 100 airports, as voted by passengers, you won’t find a US city listed until 28th place, and that honor went to Denver International Airport. John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) came in 59th place in the survey, up one spot from last year. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) ranked 91st; neither Newark Liberty International Airport nor LaGuardia made the list.

There are real reasons to be disenchanted. The congested New York area facilities and LAX have some of the worst delays in the country among major airports, according to the Department of Transportation. Public transportation options to and from LaGuardia are pitiful. Traffic to LAX is legendary. Newark is in New Jersey.

But US airports are tireless workhorses. They handle more traffic than many international airports abroad because of the country’s large domestic air-route network, unlike many hubs in other countries. Eight of the top 10 busiest airports measured by takeoffs and landings last year were in the US, according to Airports Council International

Some criticism by Trump has referred to the look of certain US airports, and the message they send to arriving travelers, not about logistics, ground transportation and security. (Note Trump’s reference to the disappointment one feels when “you land” at one of the big US airports, and his past complaint about LaGuardia’s “40-year-old floor.”)

Flying into LaGuardia often offers air travelers some of the most spectacular views of Manhattan. But are airports like LaGuardia pleasant? Maybe not. They have poor lighting in parts. They generally give off an old bowling alley-like feel in their baggage claim areas. And food and shopping options may be too limited to bear for some. But an airport isn’t a place to hang around. Under the best possible circumstances, you get in and you get out. There’s a whole city to see out there. When conditions are less than ideal, and you’re stuck in a crowded terminal with little to do, the aesthetics get especially loathsome. But we pretty much lost our grip on aesthetics at the airport when sweatpants became acceptable attire for a flight.

Few Americans would argue that their infrastructure system suffers from underinvestment, red tape, and high costs, but there are several multibillion-dollar airport improvement projects already planned or underway around the US, including at LAX and LaGuardia. While those changes won’t happen overnight and are already causing side effects, they are being addressed in some tricky, densely populated areas. A little patience would seem to be in order.

Though his airport bashing may have given Americans a brief moment of unity, Trump arguably doesn’t have the same flying experience most of us do. He doesn’t have to fight a rush-hour crowd at a LaGuardia, or struggle to get his suitcase into a bathroom stall with him before boarding, or stand on an endless security line.


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