Every time I fly, I wonder if the current airport I’m in is the best airport I’ve traveled through, running it through a catalog of other places I’ve flown through. Then I wonder: can an airport actually be good? Or are these spaces the lone architectural entities whose sole purpose is to suck?
I wonder. But I also compare and contrast my travels to see where I’ve had the best and worst departures and arrivals. Thus, a list: airports, ranked, by experiences had there and ease by which to travel to, from, and through.
A few things. Some I have traveled through many times. Some once or twice. This is more of a list of feelings than facts. @ me all you want: this is my list.
This airport is a portable toilet. It’s always hell to get to. Car, train, bus: you can never have a good ride before your plane ride here. It’s not so much a part of the city it represents as much as it’s an awful greeting and farewell committee. It’s ugly and cramped. It’s often sweaty. People are mean. Au Bon Pain is all you can eat. But Shake Shack!!! No. I say no to JFK. If New York City is Jesus (To some people.) then John F. Kennedy International Airport is the cross that he was nailed to.
Just like JFK, this airport is fucking far. It’s the type of place that you tell people in DC that you are flying into and their face drops, like you just told them that a parent is sick. They won’t be picking you up. You will have to take the sad bus ride to town where you’ll probably end up standing for an hour before having to take the subway to get to where you need to go. You can take a ride share or a taxi but, still, it sucks. There’s nothing like getting to a destination only to wait to actually get to your destination. That is a unique crime that IAD commits repeatedly.
Imagine Kennedy but with beer factories behind it and you have Newark Liberty International Airport. The pro of EWR is that it seems like there are less congested highways designed to take you to or from New York City. But, remember, New York City is terrible. Like Jesus, it’s a false promise. Newark is the INRI above his head, denoting the shit you behold. It’s the cultural equivalent of an airport hotel. It’s a dirty mattress. Unfortunately, it’s my family’s airport, the one that they always fly into and out of to visit family in the area. A welcoming committee just barely below a slap.
When I flew back from Paris a few years, a two week vacation that was one of the most profound experiences of my life, the welcome back we had to America was given to us by Boston’s Logan International Airport. What a sour return! The accents, the Winter weathered faces, the general wickedness of it all. This airport wasn’t bad as much as it was America in a nutshell: coarse, uncool, and ultimately disappointing.
The irony of Boston being the unwelcoming committee from a trip to Paris is that Charles de Gaulle Airport is nearly as terrible an airport. It’s always under construction. It’s far. It’s one giant duty free. You never have enough time there and you’re always late. There are too many distractions here. Like most bad airports, it doesn’t really even exist in the city that it claims to represent but is instead so far outside of the cosmopolitan universe you sought out: Charles de Gaulle defines this.
In truth, I barely remember traveling through this Korean airport since I passed through it at ages eleven and thirteen. I remember it being so far from the city and a noodled knot of construction. The ride to the actual city was pretty though, something that I’m sure the Parisian de Gaulle will sulk about. That’s the thing: Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is the Paris airport but nicer – and that airport is already “nice.”
My home team. It sucks. There are worse airports, sure, but the fuss about LAX is that getting dropped off or picked up is always a mess – and it has only gotten worse. It seems to have been designed by a tooth: its a curving arch that is clogged up by all of our needs. Security can be a nightmare but, in comparison to places like JFK and CDG, LAX is a delight. The upgrading of the travel hubs have been welcome too: lots of great food places and shops now. Unfortunately, you have to fight to get in or out of the place. (Note that Tom Bradley International Terminal is fucking incredible and would easily be the top spot if it existed by itself with a sensible pick-up and drop-off system. But it doesn’t.)
This is both near-and-far from the city it represents. San Francisco International Airport is entirely unspectacular. The biggest catch here is that it’s fairly expensive to travel out of, particularly by cab. Consider this the palate cleanse before the truly good airports. It’s so extremely vanilla that it no longer has a taste.
Seattle–Tacoma International Airport is nice! There are some attractions and it is totally functional. Forty minutes away from points of interest, yes, but it is entirely unfussy. That is a plus.
Technically, Milan–Malpensa Airport is a schlep. You have to take an hour long train to get there and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. However, it’s charming, old fashioned even. The airport seems to be a direct import from 1975 in the best ways possible. Typically, this wouldn’t be so charming for an airport but, somehow, a bad city like Milan does this travel right. You get to walk on the tarmac and there are cute little cafés that treat the airfield like the top of a skyscraper. It’s cute.
6. That One North Carolina Airport
That one North Carolina airport – Charlotte Douglas International Airport or the vulgar “CLT” – is layover central and, my, what a great place for this. It has a lot of character – Great stores, great restaurants. – and rocking chairs to ease any travel stresses. I’ve spent many a time at this airport. It feels like I’ve lived there for a few years. Perhaps this is revisionist or idealistic but it’s quite nice. Quaint, even.
Speaking of quaint, the Hollywood Burbank Airport is a secret. It’s small and few can actually fly through here but it’s an airport in Los Angeles’ backyard. It’s incredibly no-drama. It’s anti-fussy. There are no good stores or shops but the ease by which it places you into and out of Los Angeles is unrivaled. It is classic.
Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport suggests perfection, that you can actually design an airport that makes sense. Created in a strange H-shape, you enter through the connecting bar and then tram away to wherever you need to go. There, you will drink sweat tea and munch on gay hating Chick-Fil-A before departing. It’s nice! There’s even great little art displays between terminals. You can get fucked and have to walk what feels like miles to get out of there but often that’s welcome when you’ve been sitting on a plane for literally hours. It helps that this airport isn’t that far from the city – and getting there by train is very easy.
This might be a divisive addition in an inflated place but, boy, Philadelphia International Airport feels intimate and European. It’s open and mostly empty and so easy to get in and out of. Nothing about this place is a hassle. Yes, it’s not easy to get to or from but the airport experience itself is so wonderful that any other drama evaporates. Then again, this might be the afterglow of having flown through here most recently. It was an unrivaled experience, with no TSA lines and actually kind TSA people. I didn’t know traveling could be this easy.
You know how Dulles is bad? It’s because Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is so good. Practically on Capitol Hill, the airport is the easiest, easiest, easiest place to get to. It’s old fashioned like Burbank but with a reach that makes flying in and out of it quite easy instead of a more locals-only affair. You can take myriad transportation to get here and none are fussy at all. Reagan makes you want to fly more. And, as an added bonus, it looks like you’re flying in and out of water when you travel.
Where to begin? This airport is basically in the city. It’s easy to get through and presents itself in an absolutely non-fussy way. There is always some quaint entertainment happening. Everyone is nice. White, yes, but everyone is nice. The name – Portland International Airport , PDX – is very cool too. Then there are the carpets. The carpets! They’re fun and funky and delightfully nineties. In fact, the floors are the best metaphor for this place: it’s a nineties breeze. Perhaps this is nostalgia, perhaps it’s because it makes up for a fairly unremarkable white city: unsure. Whatever it is, PDX is a lesson: be easy, be low key, be a net-positive. Airports rarely do this but Portland somehow does it effortlessly.