Personal Notes on US Airports

When it comes to understanding airports you need to talk to a man who has spent more time living out of hotel rooms, working out of local Starbucks as much as his office, and has his own daughter checking Facebook to figure out what state he is in. Bill Fulton is this type of man, or at least we was until July, when he was announced as the new Director of Planning and Neighborhood Restoration for San Diego.

His life is no calmer, but revolves around a local hub. Thankfully, we were able to track him down for a 10 minute interview.

Airports can be judged by endless criteria, best restrooms, retail, coffee, available outlet plugs, on time arrives and departures. When asked what the “best” airport was without any definition Bill’s definitive answer was, “Denver Airport.” This new airport is large, offering “good retail behind the gate.” Unlike the older airports that are now crowded due to the overuse of their facilities, Denver is “up to date.” As a business traveler, he loves it for its abundant outlets and the ability to make any space his office. The atmosphere is similar to a “really nice shopping mall.”

For business travelers what is important tends to be the ability to plug your laptop in anywhere, access to free wi-fi, and the ground time from the moment you land to the minute you walk through the office door. “We hit the ground in a real hurry,” Bill remembers fondly. For this reason airports that have easy transportation are always a favorite. This is where Reagan Airport (DC) and Logan Airport (Boston) excel; the metro can get you from the airport to downtown DC in 12 minutes, while the Boston T takes 10 minutes.  If you are traveling for leisure, easy public transportation is still appreciated, but some of the slower rail systems still qualify as “fast and simple,” making airports like Seattle still relatively accessible.

Mention the word worst and the bark of a reply will be “JFK.” Why? “I cannot explain why, like LAX, it is a big old airport and things always go wrong there.” In addition, it is far from the city and always crowded. Instead, Bill recommends the Newark airport, a little further from the city but has a direct train to NYC. From Newark you can “get on a train and practically go anywhere.” The airport is newer, which inevitable means that it offers more amenities, and is known for having great connection flights.

Before we can get into the terminal though, there are the security lines. However, Bill’s first response was a little dis-heartening, “I always pick wrong.” “Whenever possible, try to get Express of Preference” if you are a frequent flier. The key factors when choosing a line: stand behind men in suits or look like avid business travelers. Most likely they travel at least 3 times a week and have the drill down. At all costs, avoid families with children. Not that Bill has ever had the luxury of time to do this, but nonetheless he recommends observing the TSA agents for 2 minutes. “It is obvious… some move fast and some move slow.”

After getting through security, the best place to grab a drink is SFO. The airport is prone to delays because of the coastal fog, but they have great bars – especially the United terminal.

Sometimes the finer things in life are in the details. When traveling you learn to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. Since airports are often owned and funded by cities, they commonly have a public art requirement. Keep your eyes open at the Sacramento Airport! When you enter the new terminal you will be greeted by the Red Rabbit, after going down the escalator. In the old terminal, by baggage claim, you will see a large statue of suitcases piled to the ceiling — make sure that yours is not one of them!

Lessons learned:

  • Smaller airports when possible (e.g. Burbank over LAX, Newark over JFK).
  • At security lines stand behind business men and not families.
  • Keep your eyes open for public art!
  • Take a vacation to go skiing in Denver and enjoy their new airport! A rail connection will be coming in the next few years.

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