Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Terminal condition

Photo courtesy of airdisaster.com

ast July, Squawking VFR kicked off a two-part series examining our nation's airports. In it, I ranked the top five based on criteria ranging from runway incursions to friendliness of employees.

Denver International earned top honors amid scant competition.

We know you've all been waiting with bated breath for the riveting conclusion, so without further buildup, here's the list of the five worst airports in America.

1. LaGuardia Airport. (KLGA).

It's stuffed beyond capacity with traffic. It's dirty. The people who work there are rude. Logistically, it's less safe than other major airports.

LaGuardia's two runways are 7,003 and 7,001 feet long. The only two Class B airports -- the nation's major landing strips -- with shorter runways are New Orleans and Chicago-Midway.

The lack of real estate at the 550-acre airport has contributed to several fatal crashes. In 1959, an American Airlines jet crashed on approach into the East River. In 1989, pictured above, a US Air jet crashed on takeoff into the East River. In 1992, a US Air flight bound for Cleveland crashed on takeoff into the East River.

In 1994, a Continental flight aborted takeoff and skidded down a ditch. There were no fatalities in this case, but the plane came to a rest precariously close to the shores of ... the East River.

See a pattern?

The waters block any room for expansion, so the citizens of 2008 are stuck using a facility built with standards set in the propeller-driven aviation age of the 1930s.

The short runways also restrict the size of jets that can use the field because heavier equipment needs longer runways. Once in a while, Delta will fly a 767-300 into LGA. Back in the day, Eastern commonly flew its magnificent L-1011 fleet down to Florida from Fiorello's pad.

For the most part, though, you're stuck on regional jets, 737s and A320s if you're traveling through LaGuardia. All mean cramped quarters for passengers.

Another reason you're stuck on small equipment is an arcane rule implemented by the Port Authority, New York City's regional transportation overseer, that prohibits flights of more than 1,500 miles from originating at LGA.

The airport annually leads the list of airports with the worst on-time performance, an aggravating footnote for passengers already afraid of taking a big drink on takeoff.

2. Chicago-Midway. (KMDW).

Safety takes priority of my criteria. So it's no surprise that Midway takes my No. 2 ranking among the country's worst airports.

Like LaGuardia, it's got short runways. The longest of its five strips measures 6,522 feet, and they're all wedged into a postage-stamp sized space in the middle of urban Chicago.

A recipe for disaster.

(Note that by saying the runways are short, I'm not saying they are inherently dangerous. Indeed, the landing and takeoff data for planes using these runways all fall within the FAA safety standards prescribed to fit their particular makes and models. But it's just reality that a shorter runway statistically provides less margin for error than its longer peers).

As far back as 1949, you'll find a list of pesky planes bothering residents with the occasional foray into a backyard barbecue. The most recent occurred in 2005, when a Southwest 737-300 overran a runway upon landing and killed a 6-year-old boy at the intersection of 55th Ave. and Central Avenue.

Much like LaGuardia, the field configuration is a remnant of a bygone era. Both airports were built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration on small spaces with no room for expansion when aviation transitioned to the jet age.

Yet their use persists.

Add to safety concerns the fact that Midway's terminal has all the aesthetic comfort of a bus station, and it's easy to see how it draws the No. 2 spot.

3. Los Angeles International Airport. (KLAX).

I'll preface my remarks by saying that I like LAX. I like the structure of the terminals. I like its iconic control tower. Jumbo jets from all over the world park at its gates, a scene that triggers dopamine-like injections of wanderlust into my brain.

Spot a Swiss Air DC-1o on the tarmac, and I'll dream of skiing the Alps or climbing the Matterhorn. Watch a Qantas 747 pull away from the gate, and suddenly I'm begging Mrs. VFR to take me to a Midnight Oil concert.

But the fact remains that more runway incursions occur at LAX than any other Class B airport. A runway incursion is defined simply as a plane not being where it's supposed to be while using the airport's surfaces.

Many aviation experts fear that it's only a matter of time before an incursion causes a major catastrophe. Indeed, several have already been averted at the last moment.

In a 2006 incident, a landing United 737 hop-scotched over a Southwest jet that had erroneously wandered onto an active runway. This USA Today article outlines five other incursions that occurred over a multi-week span.

Not all accidents have been avoided.

In a 1991 accident that killed passengers with all the fairness of a falling tree squashing grapes, a US Air flight landed on top of a SkyWest turbo-prop on Runway 24L.

New technology is being researched to help pilots and controllers maintain better awareness of their clearances. The sooner it's standardized and installed at LAX, the better chance the flying public has of avoiding a major accident.

Until then, LAX is Tenerife waiting to happen all over again.

4. Miami International Airport. (KMIA).

A third-world country.

Every time I've used this facility, I've been greeted with chaos at the front door. Check-in procedures are riddled with disorganization on a mass scale. Security lines snake through the terminal. Employees are, at their best, unhelpful.

Some of these problems are caused by fellow passengers. Using only anecdotal evidence, I've concluded that Miami has the highest number of passengers who travel with large chests, crates sealed with duct-tape and other unwieldy storage devices.

They need hydraulic jacks to push their baggage through the aforementioned lines, and the size of their carriage creates obstacles for other customers.

Generally, an unpleasant experience.

However, my worst experience at Miami did not occur in a line upon check-in, but while waiting for an Avis bus to haul me to its rental lot in 2002.

For more than 45 minutes.

Avis prides itself on prompt service, a reason I had chosen to do business with them, so I was highly irritated at the lengthy delay.

Customers awaiting rental-bus pickup are confined to a parking area inside the lower-level concourse. Buses use this area for pick up or idling, and I spent all 45 of those minutes inhaling vile fumes from Avis' competitors' buses, adding lung cancer to insult.

Days later, I still seethed over this experience. So I fired off an angry letter to Avis CEO Jim Salerno that outlined my grievances with his overdue bus and toxic waiting cubicle. I CC'd the Better Business Bureau and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

To its credit, an Avis flack viewed my situation with "extreme gravity" and offered an apology, along with a $63.15 refund.

Pinky Hall, the Inspector General of the Florida DEP said that his office didn't have jurisdiction over the airport area, so he forwarded my letter to the Dade County Environmental Resources Management's Air Quality Division.

The DERM Air Quality Division didn't have jurisdiction either, but the supervisor dealing with my letter spoke with someone at the U.S. Department of Labor, which in turn placed the case in the hands of OSHA.

In its investigation, OSHA found "pollutant measurements in the lower-level concourse are significantly below the 8-hour maximum concentration of 50-ppm carbon monoxide" that are allowed by law.

Yes! My complaint had saved legions of future travelers from contracting lung-eating tumors. Surely, OSHA, this governmental watchdog, would stop the airport's environmental malfeasance.

The letter continued.

To paraphrase: Even though the conditions are below standard, the airport has been working really, really hard to reduce vehicle emissions in the lower-level concourse area, and that I could talk to them about their efforts if I wanted to do so.

Thanks for enforcing those rules, guys.

5. Kansas City International Airport. (KMCI).

A minor-league shitbox.

Here's what happened the last time I took a trip through this deplorable facility:

This was in the days you could print a copy of your itinerary, combine it with a driver's license, and get through security.

Thornbirds and I returned our rental car and arrived at the terminal 40 minutes before our departure time. Given the curb at MCI is about 30 feet from the gates and we had no luggage to check, we expected to be sitting comfortably at our gate with 39 minutes to spare.

Then the security guard rejected our attempts to pass through the gates.

She told us we needed our boarding passes. This countered the aforementioned written policy, of course, but we didn't protest at this time. We headed for the check-in line.

When we got there, we found the line ran from the counter to pretty much the sidewalk. We didn't move an inch for five minutes.

At this point, I decided to make another run at the security guard.

"Look, it says right here that we don't need a boarding pass. We just need a copy of our itinerary and our IDs," I said, waving those documents into her line of sight as I lost patience. I continued pleading. The argument got heated.

This was either in 2002 or 03, when 9-11 was still a raw wound for airport security. I was conscious of the fact that I didn't want to create a scene at the airport, and our heated conversation with the security guard was approaching scene status.

I backed off, ultimately knowing that in the security guard-versus-disgruntled passenger beef, there's only one winner, especially when every one of the news reports from these sorts of incidents invariably labels the disgruntled passenger a "potential terrorist."

So we returned to the mile-long check-in line. We waited for about 15 minutes, and it didn't budge. We listened to the boarding announcements for our flight and watched passengers walk down the Jetway through the huge glass panels that separated ticketed passengers from the no-boarding-pass vermin.

When they announced the final boarding call, I did something so heinous and hypocritical that I am mired in self-loathing to this day.

I cut the line.

Many of you know that, in my mind, there's no greater social crime. I once went ballistic at Newark (KEWR) when someone did that to me in the skycap line, the first time Mrs. VFR ever saw me lose my cool.

But in this case, I felt a) the security guard's behavior necessitated extraordinary measures, and b) we were going to miss our flight.

Thornbirds and I walked to the counter and explained our situation. Irked, the agent said, "You know, you can go to the gate with a printed copy of your itinerary and a valid government ID."

"We know!" we said.

He printed our boarding passes and we sprinted toward the security guard. I'm sure a wide smirk accompanied the all-important document when I handed it to her, and the troll responded by taking her sweet time in reviewing our credentials, well aware we had only seconds to make our flight.

Ultimately, she capitulated and allowed us to proceed through the metal detector.

But when Thornbirds' laptop emerged on the safe side of the conveyor belt, she declared that it needed a secondary inspection.

The troll grabbed the Dell, held it level with her head and then dropped it approximately three feet onto an aluminum table.

She then declared it good to go.

Gate agents were literally closing the Jetway door. We had no time to lodge a complaint. We could only grab the maimed computer and make a run for it.

Dishonorable mentions:

Detroit International Airport. (KDTW). The McNamara Terminal is Northwest's beautiful new hub. The Berry Terminal is a ramshackle piece of dung. Depending on which one you're using, you'll have a vastly different experience.

Newark International Airport. (KEWR). First, I refuse to use the jingoistic "Liberty" moniker added by hysterical zealots in the days after 9-11. These are probably the same people who invented the phrase "Freedom Fries."

Second, Newark's baggage claim area is as seedy as a New York alley.

Third, Newark is a magnet for flight delays and ground stops.

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At 5:55 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

I have never flown in or from Laguardia but now any chance of that happening just got nixed by this post.

I ama big fan of the "Don't Take a Ride With These Guys" signs by baggage claim. For years, my brother and I had plans to swipe one of those and bring it home. Never happened because I didn't feel getting arrested. I did consider having pledges get one however....

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Simeon Pincus said...

I am not what I would call an experienced flier. I have taken, maybe, 10-12 trips via air in my life, but I find it interesting that I have experienced 4-of-5 airports on this list (never been to LAX), and, of course Newark on your dishonorable mention list makes it 6-of-7.

Maybe I should stop flying.

In any case, I have to protest the inclusion of LaGuardia. And, really, there is only one reason:
What other airport in the world gives you as good a view of Big Shea??? C'mon, cat!!

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Pete said...


You make a fair point about the wonderfulness of being buzzed by 727s while sitting in the parking lot of Shea.

But since the ballpark is off airport grounds and off the flight realm, it cannot be included in the criteria.

If however, you are talking about your experience of seeing Shea as a passenger on an arriving jet, that's a little different.

That merits inclusion, because it complements the travel experience.

And along those lines, it is fair to say that you get a gorgeous view of the Manhattan skyline on approach to LGA.

At 11:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LGA is a colossal piece of shit. I'm sorry if I've offended New Yorkers but I've been to airports on four continents and LGA is the biggest piece of shit in the entire aviation community.

I love to fly JetBlue (David Letterman jokes aside). New planes, convenient routes, pretty FAs, etc. But why they selected LGA for their hub is beyond me.

1. If there are more than 2 flights waiting to board in the same terminal, it's a standing room only crowd.

2. Generally staff is so rude at LGA it would make someone from Philly go, "these people are a bunch of fucking assholes."

3. What is that smell?

4. Ever wonder why your connecting within 500 miles of LGA but your itinerary lists a 2.5 hour flight? It's because the airlines pad the times to account for the hour to an hour and a half you'll spend taxiing at LGA.

It's actually becoming more efficient to drive in the northeast corridor now instead of flying.


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