Why can't airports run more like theme parks?

July 10, 2017, 6:33 PM · Why can't airports be more like theme parks?

I'm not suggesting that airports start installing roller coasters, fairy-tale castles, and cartoon character meet and greets. I suppose the airplane trips themselves already feel a lot like the world's most expensive 4D rides — stare at a screen for three hours while your seat shakes and moves! And airports and the airlines that operate within them pioneered the businesses of variable pricing and upselling years before theme parks go into that act.

No, where airports need to emulate theme parks better is in the way that they manage and service the millions of people who pass through them every year.

Modern airports demonstrate a mastery of complex logistics — but for planes, not necessarily for the passengers who fly in them. Airlines spend ungodly amounts of money to learn how to turn around the flights in as little time as possible, maximizing the income they can earn while planes are in the air. Gate schedules and ground traffic control support the airlines' efforts to get people and luggage off and on, garbage off, and fuel and refreshments back on a plane with no delay.

So long as people are in place at the gate to get on when the plane is ready to move, the airport has done its job, in the airlines' view. But the experience that people endure on their way to the gate too often leaves them feeling frustrated — if not defeated and angry — setting the stage for disappointment and too often in recent months, conflict. Surely, there's a better way to handle the flow of tens of thousands of people on a daily basis?

There is, and theme parks are the experts in doing that.

The big problem here is that airports need to start caring as much about passengers as they do about airlines. While every airport management team in America will say that they care about their passengers, the decisions they make about their operations betray their true loyalty. Airports want passenger satisfaction the way that a little kid wants a pony from Santa Claus. Wishing and hoping are nice, but they rarely get the job done.

I've been flying a lot more than usual over the past year, but no matter what airport I'm flying through in the United States, I can guarantee you I will see a huge line of people spilling into and blocking the hallway in front of the Starbucks. And that there will be a huge, unruly mass of people swarming 20 feet away from any gate where a flight is scheduled to leave within the next 30 minutes.

Don't think they're so unruly? Try to push your way to the front and see how people react.

We see these crowd flow problems because too many U.S airports continue to operate under a 20th century model, before the threat of long lines at TSA checkpoints pushed people to arrive long before their flight times and when people could bring their own beverages into the airport and on their planes.

The number-one thing airports could do to improve their operational efficiency — and therefore, their guest satisfaction — is to double, if not triple the number (or at least, capacity) of the coffee counters in their terminals. Maybe it's Starbucks, or maybe it's a well-respected regional chain. (As a Californian, I love seeing Peet's in airports where I fly.) But people want their coffee, and airports need to quit making them wait such long lines to get it.

Airports don't have unlimited space for expansion, of course. So what needs to go to make way for all those extra coffee counters? Easy. When was the last time you saw people buying an armful of magazines and newspapers to read on a plane? Just like when we're on the ground, we pass our time in the air with digital entertainment now, whether it's via seat-back video systems or in-flight entertainment apps. Yet airports continue to devote valuable retail space for enormous newsstands that typically end up selling mostly bottled water and a few snacks. Guess what? People could buy those at the coffee counters if the lines weren't so long.

The last time I was in LAX I had to stop myself from laughing when the only two other people in a newsstand store were there to buy bottled Frappuccinos... because the line at the Starbucks across the way was too long for them to make their flight. The allocation of retail space in too many airport terminals is simply absurd.

Airports would know this if they more consistently tracked wait times, guests served per hour, and theoretical guests capacity, in addition to sales and inventory data — the way that theme parks routinely do for their attractions and retail locations. If wait times at the Starbucks were part of an airport's success metric the way that on-time departures are, you'd better believe we'd see a lot more coffee counters in the nation's airports.

Airports and concessionaires love long-term contracts because they provide both sides with the economic security that the concessionaires need to recoup their investment and that the airports need to support their operations. But when contracts get so long that the airport can no longer adjust to shifting consumer needs, well, that's when we end up with empty newsstands and overflowing Starbucks.

At the gate, airports need better queuing design to speed flow onto plane and reduce congestion at the gate. In the United States, Southwest Airlines come closest to getting this right. People are going to stand around gate near boarding time. You might as well organize that and put people into an ordered queue rather than leaving them to amass in an unstructured crowd. Other airlines' "boarding zones" don't provide enough structure to prevent that. Why not try better to do this right?

Ultimately, elected officials need to stand up for the people who elected them and demand more consideration for passengers in their community's airport. Local officials can address retail concerns at individual airports, but we need federal leadership to challenge airline operations.

The silly — yet so frustrating — thing about this is that these problems can be fixed. There's no inviolate law of physics or even economics that prevents airports from providing the stuff people want and from airlines from moving their passengers more efficiently before they get on the plane. The problem is one of inertia — of overcoming the habit of the way things have been done in enormously expensive, hard-to-change capital developments.

I get that. But theme parks aren't exactly cheap and easy to build, either. If the theme park industry figured out how to more efficiently manage and service crowds, airports can, too.

The question is... do they care enough to try?

Replies (14)

July 10, 2017 at 7:48 PM · Having witnessed all the modern asian airports (like Hong Kong, Singapore) and middle eastern airports (like Dubai, Doha) they really shame up how awful American airports are.
July 10, 2017 at 10:58 PM · I'm confused...is this a rant about airports or airlines?

Listening to someone from Los Angeles write an editorial about airports makes for a good laugh, since the problems you perceive to be nationwide are largely unique to LAX. You live in a city that has an antiquated airport that is totally inadequate for the city and passenger traffic that it serves.

There are probably plenty of coffee stands in LAX in total, a beverage that I personally detest. However, the problem is they're spread across multiple terminals that are largely inaccessible to each other.

Go to Orange County where I used to live and the problems you describe are non-issues in SNA-John Wayne airport. Austin, where I live now, has a modern airport with more food and beverage options than many larger airports. Again, lines are not an issue.

As for the boarding process of airlines, United is by far the best after the changes they've made since the merger with Continental. I hate Southwest Airlines process. You're not going to get a frequent traveler like myself to accept non-assigned seating and a loyalty program that offers you no lifetime benefits. That's why amateurs fly Southwest and they suffer from all of the inexperienced, value oriented travelers that airline attracts.

July 11, 2017 at 12:20 AM · RE: ultimate roller coaster

The main point of this article is why cant busy US international airports in cities like LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, New York and DC be more like overseas airports in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore.

SNA is a domestic airport and Austin Texas does not handle anywhere near as much international traffic as the US airports listed above.

you need to fly to more non us destinations to see where Robert is coming from.

By the way, I current reside in Hong Kong ( voted 5th best airport in the world ) and originally from Vancouver, Canada (voted best north american airport)(well according to skytrax that is) =)

Even the airports in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen put most U.S. international airports to shame

July 11, 2017 at 2:35 AM · The one thing I can't understand is why every major terminal will without fail have a luggage store. Too late fellas.
July 11, 2017 at 4:40 AM · US infrastructure in general is slacking. I live in NYC and the subway system here isn't as great as other large international cities.
July 11, 2017 at 4:46 AM · People like ultimaterollercoaster provide the inertia that Robert is talking about, and they are the reason things like this never change.

In my last job I traveled a lot. JAX, ATL, BWI, BNA, ORF, ORD, MDW, PEK, SNA, DVN, MCI, PHL, all airports have issues like this. In every one you'll find at least one food vendor whose line will extend into the walkway. And I don't drink coffee, so I was one of those guys who frequented those empty new stands to purchase a soda or a bottle of water, and I was always thankful for the short lines.

For domestic flights I always flew Southwest, and in about a decade I had only been delayed a handful of times. But on any other carrier, I was consistently delayed or inconvenienced in some way. Who cares about assigned seating when frequent fliers are always able to get a seat in the front of the plane. And when they make it to the gate, they hit the brakes and people get the hell off the plane, no screwing around. There's almost never any waiting on the tarmac with Southwest.

July 11, 2017 at 8:39 AM · Airports don't need to care about passengers. While they tout the desire to increase their throughput by comparing annual passenger trips to nearby airports, each airport is its own mini-monopoly. They only care about what the airlines will pay for their slots and that every available slot on their FAA-allowable schedule is booked. Certainly there are metropolitan areas that have multiple airports that appear to compete with each other, but in most of those cases, it's not the airports that are competing, it's the airlines. As airlines have consolidated their slots following over a decade of mergers and takeovers, one or two airlines dominate each of a metropolitan area's airports. As such, a metropolitan area like Washington DC/Baltimore (where I live) has three (3) major airports, Dulles/IAD, Washington/Reagan Nation/DCA, and Baltimore/Washington International/BWI, but each airport caters to a different set of airlines, each with unique destinations and itineraries. Want to fly Southwest, you're most likely going to find the cheapest, most convenient fare out of BWI, a long-time Southwest hub with over half the airport's slots dedicated to the low-cost airline. While Southwest does fly routes out of DCA (they have taken over a number of the old US Airways gates that were eliminated after consolidation with American), the fares and itineraries are not as ideal. The same goes for all of the airlines that tend to have cheaper and more convenient flights at one of the three nearby airports. So, most people flying out of this region are choosing an airport based on the airline. Want to fly to Europe, if you don't want to connect in another American city before crossing the pond, you're stuck with either BWI or Dulles (airports that are 50+ miles apart that could take as much as 3 hours to go between during rush hour), because National doesn't have any routes to Europe without first connecting in New York, Philadelphia, Charlotte, or Atlanta.

In Washington DC, as it is with some other major metropolitan regions around the country (like New York, Chicago, Dallas, and LA), there may be multiple airports, but one is significantly more convenient to each individual because of proximity, and an increased fare or less convenient itinerary doesn't outweigh the time lost driving across a crowded metropolis to the airport on the other side of town. If you live in Northern Virginia, for instance, you're more likely to select flights at Dulles or National because you don't have to cross a bridge like you would to get to BWI in Maryland, even if that Southwest flight may be cheaper and non-stop. Same goes for passengers living in Maryland that would sell their soul not to have to drive all the way out to Dulles (over 20 miles west of Washington, DC). If you live in DC or don't have a car, flying out of National is a virtual necessity because it's currently the only airport served by the Metro subway system (Metro is currently building an extension of the subway out to Dulles, but a ride out there is likely to take over an hour from the city center to the distant airport).

In reality, even in major cities where there are multiple airports to choose from, airports have ZERO incentive to make their experience better for passengers. In most instances, passengers really don't have a choice. Additionally, even what are considered major cities like Atlanta, Seattle, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Denver have just one airport to choose from and passengers become just another member of the captive audience to the vendors that deliberately charge premiums on goods and services beyond the security perimeter (some airports have at least established rules that prohibit this practice, but it's not very widespread). For as much as airports say they want to improve the passenger experience, there's no incentive for them to do so. As long as the airlines are happy and continue to pay ever-increasing slot fees, passengers will show up and deal with it. It's a sad state of affairs, but until airlines start pushing airports to provide better, and more convenient services, nothing will change. Passengers have NO POWER to improve the current state of airports. After all, as a passenger, are you really going to pay $100 more for a flight out of one airport over another because it typically has a shorter Starbuck's line or a larger, cleaner set of bathrooms? Airline passengers make their decisions based on the convenience of the itinerary and price, and very few, if any, are going to pay more or make an extra stop on their trip just to fly out of a nicer airport (unless of course that airport is more convenient to get to or cheaper to park at).

This rant from Robert is valuable to shed light on the deteriorating state of American air travel, but no matter how much we scream to the heavens, nothing at airports will ever change.

July 11, 2017 at 6:52 AM · TSA has a Pre-Check that will save time for those who travel often. Not worth it for me since we only fly once or twice per year..

But you have to pay for it like a fastpass...

July 11, 2017 at 7:49 AM · RE: Russell Meyer

Good points.

However at the end of the day in my opinion, it simply comes down to lack of competition for flying in the US when it comes to travelling long distances within the continental USA.

In many parts of Europe and Asia, airports and airlines have to compete with trains (e.g. High speed rail) and buses as transportation options for general public.

That could be a big reason why airports have to step up their game overseas while in many places the US, airports are the only game in town.

Trains and buses are simply not a viable transportation option stateside because Amtrak and Greyhound are a joke!

The concept of "road trip" is still a novel and foreign concept in many places in Asia while in North America high speed rail is still a "pipe dream" Go figure.

July 11, 2017 at 8:38 AM · The United States made a critical decision at the turn of the 20th Century. The powers that be chose roads over rails as the primary form of passenger transportation through much of the century. As such, rails formed the backbone of our domestic shipping network, making passenger rail, an essential form of intercity transportation for nearly 100 years, almost extinct. By prioritizing freight rail, passenger rail has become a laughingstock in the United States with Amtrak and other regional rail networks having to lease rails from shipping companies. Only in the Northeast Corridor (and even there only in certain stretches) does passenger rail have dedicated tracks, and because of the lack of redundancy, is exposed to failures by incidents and slows "high speed" rail due to limited track space.

Yes, American rail travel is a joke, but the decision has been made and little can be done to change its course. European passenger rail travel is a dream, but intercity rail travel in Europe is much more practical not only because of better infrastructure, but because of shorter distances between cities even with the location of most European airports closer to city centers or directly linked by surface transit (subway, light rail, airport links, etc...). Flying from London to Paris (a 2 hour train ride versus a 1 hour flight) is a no brainer to take the TGV. A similar distance trip from Philadelphia to Boston is a 1-hour flight, but a 6-hour train ride on the Acela. Even if the Acela bypassed stops in New York, and could travel on dedicated tracks to maximize speed, you probably still couldn't make the trip under 3 hours without pumping tens of billions of dollars into infrastructure upgrades. Because European rails have been prioritized for passenger travel for over a century, they could easily create high speed corridors linking major cities without much needed infrastructure improvements. I would also note that rail travel between some European cities (even along high speed corridors) can be time consuming if multiple stops occur in between. A trip between Rome and Venice is still a 3.5 hour train trip because of stops in Florence and Bologna, while you can drive it in about 5 hours (flying is 1 hour), so while European rail travel is superior to the US, it's still not perfect.

Buses in the US (at least in the Northeast) are getting better. Greyhound is being pressed to improve through competition from MegaBus and other low cost providers. As the newer companies slowly expand their network of routes, Greyhound has been forced to improve, and indications are that bus travel along much of the east coast has significantly improved over the past 30+ years of neglect.

It still doesn't change the fact that air travel is essential for many trips in the US because of geography. Certainly, the idea of a road trip is appealing to some, but driving more than 8 hours is simply not possible for many Americans. We almost always make our trips to Florida as an overnight drive (@12 hours from DC to Orlando), but car trips of that distance are just not feasible for many people. Air travel is far more essential in the US compared to Europe not only because of the way transportation evolved, but because of how much more spread out the US is compared to Europe. I would love to hop on a train to Florida to avoid the long, boring drive down I-95, but it takes nearly 4 hours longer, and costs 10 times as much (@5-6 times as much if we don't take our car on the AutoTrain). Even if it were a high speed line, it's liable to require stops in Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Jacksonville along the way, and would probably still take as long as it does to drive.

I live within walking distance to a train station on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line. While planning a trip earlier this year to New York City, we looked at taking the train. Even if we drove to the train station (free long term parking), it would have taken over 2 hours longer than driving, and it would cost nearly 4 times as much even with Amtrak fare sales and considering we needed to park our car in New York City (we ended up staying in Newark at a hotel with free parking, but still did the calculus assuming $40/day to park our car in the city). Car travel is just too convenient and inexpensive for shorter intercity trips in the United States, and then air travel becomes ideal for longer trips (beyond 300 miles). Rail gets stuck in the middle, and cannot compete (for us it couldn't even compete in the high density Northeast Corridor where fares are relatively cheap and frequencies are high) for middle distance trip against cars or long distance trips against airplanes.

July 11, 2017 at 11:10 AM · Rusell's rant reminds me of a hysterical "Archer" episode where they investigate a bomb threat against a guy trying to get the zeppelin industry going again. It turns out the owner himself is behind it for the insurance as the business is failing since, as he points out "who wants to spend an entire day flying on a zeppelin when you can take a jet and be there in four hours?"
July 11, 2017 at 11:55 AM · My local airport is Philadelphia International and IMHO it's not a bad airport to fly out of or into. Because I have TSA pre-check (at $85 for 5 years, a bargain)I breeze through security in no time, and I've never encountered prohibitively long lines at coffee counters.

As to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor service, I had a positive experience with it during the 4th of July weekend in connection with a trip to Six Flags New England. No way am I going to drive that distance and flying there is simply too expensive, at least for a trip booked at the last minute. American Airlines was charging $665 to fly from Philly to Hartford and Amtrak was charging just over $171 to go to Springfield, MA so although I could have gotten to Hartford in an hour as opposed to the 5+ hours it took to get to Springfield, it was well worth the extra time to save over $450. Also the train ride was both pleasant and relaxing. Although I could fly to Hartford on American for $313 if I book the flight far enough in advance, I'm going to take Amtrak for my trip to Lake Compounce b/c I can probably get to Hartford for as little as $130 if I don't wait until the last minute.

July 11, 2017 at 4:06 PM · Bobbie- I know Amtrak is a good option for travelling within the Northeast compared to flying, but I think the vast majority of people around here would choose driving whenever possible. On google maps, Philly to SFNE is 3:51, 233 miles worth of gas, and $15 at the GWB whether your transporting 1 person or the whole family. No way is the stereotypical family of 4 spending $600 and an extra hour+ on the train whenever driving is an option.
I'd love if you could post a little trip report on Lake Compounce. It's only 2 hours from NY but I don't know if it's worthwhile.
July 12, 2017 at 9:56 AM · FloreanFortescue -Good point about distance from Philly to SFNE. For most people driving would indeed be the preferred mode of transport. For someone like me whose nerves were shot after driving 3 hours to Knoebels it wouldn't be the best choice. You're right on the mark about the stereotypical family but as I almost invariably travel alone I have to worry about only one train fare. After posting my comment I booked a trip to Hartford on Amtrak for $120 and am satisfied with that. Actually I did write a report on my visit to Lake Compounce for TPI 4 years ago: http://www.themeparkinsider.com/flume/201307/3575/ Difficult to believe that so much time has passed. Anyway, I would highly recommend Lake Compounce, for Boulder Dash alone. There have been 2 significant changes since I wrote my report: 1) the addition of Phobia, which as far as I can determine is the same as Tempesto at Busch Gardens Williamsburg except that the restraints are somewhat different; and 2) the re-tracking of Wildcat. (I understand that Boulder Dash also got a bit of re-tracking.)

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