Monday, July 09, 2007

Landing strips

fter some extensive recent travels, I've come to appreciate good airports. They can make the difference between a reasonably comfortable travel experience and an absolutely wretched one. In an attempt to draw up a list of the best five U.S. airports, I've come to the conclusion they are few and far between.

I had a hard time finding five.

Picking the worst, though, was easy. There are many worthy candidates.

Below you will find my top five. All conjecture is based on experiences as a passenger, pilot and aviation enthusiast. A list of the worst will appear in a few days.


1. Denver International Airport. (KDEN).

As the beat writer covering the Donkeys, I was blessed to routinely use the best airport in the land. It exceeds expectations on all levels.

From, the outside, it is asthetically pleasing, doing its best to blend in with the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. On the inside, it has wide concourses and a good restaurant selection. The train transportation never keeps you waiting very long.

Once derided because of its ability to chew luggage, the baggage system now has to be the most efficient I've encountered. Most of the time, my bags were coming off the conveyor belt before I reached the claim area. Bonus points for the conveyor created specificially for skis.

Denver has five runways that are more than or just less than 10,000 feet, a barometer of sorts for a landing strip's ability to handle large aircraft -- the kind that fly overseas. It says a lot about a city's status to support that kind of traffic, both customer-wise and with the physical asphalt.

The long runways also make Denver an option for space shuttle landings, although to my knowledge, that's never happened.

Denver also holds a special place in aviation lore, because it is the lone Class B airport -- B's are typically the nation's biggest -- where I have landed as a pilot. Late one night, I landed a Cessna 172 on runway 17L while a United 757 touched down on 17R.

Good times.

2. San Francisco International. (KSFO).

To an extent, SFO mirrors Newark and Boston. All three were built in the same era and share many interior resemblences. But it stands above those two for many reasons.

For one, the concourses are cleaner. The food area is much cleaner, and more high-quality choices are available. For example, sandwiches on sourdough bread are pretty good.

SFO also gets bonus points for being the scene of many Dirty Harry takedowns. Callahan can stop a hijacking at SFO before the opening credits are finished rolling. (See Force, Magnum).

Its mass transit system to downtown is also probably the easiest to use among all major airports, surpassing even Chicago O'Hare.

Where it really stands out, though, is from the perspective of someone who is merely a fan of airports. The runways extend into San Francisco Bay, making final approach there something of a thrilling experience.

United and plenty of other international airlines use SFO as a gateway to all of Asia. It seems like every 15 seconds or so, there is a 747 thundering down a runway and lifting off toward points in the Orient.

Near the gates, there are usually six or seven lined up in a row, a sight I've never seen at any other airport. It is an impressive display of equipment. (See picture above). It also brings back memories of a time when such trips were exciting instead of a hassle.

I think Denver and San Francisco are the head-and-shoulder favorites. After them, the drop off -- and real debate -- begins.

3. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International. (KCVG).

Maybe it's because it is dominated by one carrier, but I've always found connecting through The Nati an efficient and easy process. Delta uses it as its primary northern hub, and I've connected through on several trips.

It's a newer airfield, and all the terminals have wide concourses and are clean. I suppose those aren't exactly high standards, but you'd be surprised at how few places can meet them. I cannot speak to the food in the terminals.

4. Chicago O'Hare. (KORD).

A lot of people would probably place O'Hare on their worst list. It has a confusing layout, which can make sprints for flights intolerably long. It has its share of rickety buildings, especially on the E concourse, out of which it runs its United Express puddle-jumpers. It inevitably has more than its share of delays.

But O'Hare gets a nod a sentimental favorite. It is the heart and soul of America's aviation puzzle.

It is usually No. 1 or No. 2 on the list of the world's busiest airports, according to number of passengers served. It is also always No. 1 or No. 2 on the list of most arrivals and departures, not surpringly.

The sheer scope of what O'Hare handles is impressive. And to do it when the field faces routine disruptions -- thunderstorms in the summer and snow squalls in the winter -- is quite a feat.

I also like O'Hare because of the fact you get such a variety of airlines landing there. Probably as many as LAX or JFK. I once got to see Air Force One parked on the ramp as I taxiied by in a crappy little RJ.

Here's a little bit of O'Hare trivia: It's identifier is ORD because the field was built on the site of an apple orchard in the 1930s.

5. Portland International. (KPDX).

You've got to love an airport so beloved by its city, that a lot of the city's residents have adopted its identifier, PDX, as a nickname for the whole town.

I've only flown in and out of PDX once, but had an overall good visit. There aren't many thrills to speak of, but it is clean and simple. There were the least amount of lines I've faces anywhere as a traveler and the airline service reps were shockingly helpful.

I'm not the only one who is fond of PDX, which offers free WiFi access in its wide concourses. Readers of Conde Nast voted it their favorite American airport.

On a clear day, you can often get a great view of Mount Hood on the long approach from 30 miles to the west.

Honorable mentions: I have never been to Washington-National, now known as Reagan. But I have heard good things. I've heard there are good eats in Atlanta, but have only connected there once in a hurry.

Boston gets a thumbs-up for construction of a new control tower. Milwaukee is surprisingly nice, although if you are flying on Midwest Express into its hub, its easy to see why you're already in a great mood.

San Diego has a good layout, but has lost my luggage too many times to merit consideration. LAX has the might of a San Francisco or Chicago, but has too many near-accidents on its runways.

I'll return in a few days with my list of the worst.



At 4:26 AM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

I'm planning a trip at the end of August. Why do I have a feeling that ERW and MCO might be atop your list....

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Pete said...


MCO definitely does not make the list of the worst. In fact, I consider it among the better, if not top five.

EWR, on the other hand, probably gets consideration for middle to bottom of the pack. Terminals are decent enough. Lack of dining options hurt it.

The baggage claim area, however, is no better than a seedy city alley.


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