Pilots' Most and Least Favorite Airports
Do you have a favorite restaurant or store you’d like to frequent, but you can’t stand the drive to get there? You know, the one just inside the most crowded parking lot, serviced by the shortest traffic light at the busiest intersection in the city. As frustrating as these factors can be for automobile drivers, the same challenges affect pilots flying into many of our nation’s airports.
From a pilot’s perspective, some airports are better than others, based on a whole list of factors that differentiate a great airport from an aggravating one
In most cases, age and geographical location play the biggest role. Areas of high population density, such as the Northeast, usually have congested skies and all the associated delays. Conversely, an airport in the middle of the Midwestern plains is likely to have little or no congestion and fewer delays (weather permitting).
Older airports tend to have overlapping and narrow set runways that were laid out according to the prevalent wind direction at the time of design, and were not intended to accept aircraft on simultaneous instrument approaches (meaning at least two aircraft are cleared for instrument approach procedures at the same airport at the same time). San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a prime example. Its predominant arrival runways, 28 left and 28 right, are not far enough apart to accept such approaches. Therefore, SFO must cut arrival flow rates almost in half when there are low clouds over the bay.
Denver International Airport (DEN), on the other hand, was designed in the late 1980s and had the luxury of open space and designer experience. DEN now has four runways oriented north/south, and three are far enough apart to allow simultaneous instrument approaches. The airport also has a low-visibility taxi radar system and gates that can be accessed easily from either direction, further reducing delays and ground congestion. Among pilots, DEN is a likely candidate for the finest airport in the United States.
The configuration of runways and taxiways is critical to an airport’s efficiency of arrivals and departures. Equally important: the layout of its gates, and how quickly and easily aircraft can cycle through. Many older airports have alleys (where the gates are located) configured like box canyons. One delay in an alley can affect countless others, making them a headache for airlines to control. If you’re ready to push back from your gate, but another airplane across the alley wants to push at the same time, usually the one who called first gets priority clearance.
Imagine what happens when a whole bank of jets wants to push at once. New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) instantly comes to mind. I recall receiving push-back clearance from the alley controller at one of LGA’s gates years ago. The wait from when we called for push to when we finally took off lasted an hour and a half—in great weather.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has fallen behind many international airports in infrastructure, functionality and passenger comfort upgrades. The prevalent difficulties seem to be crowded skies and antiquated facilities. Many of our airports were designed in the ’50s and ’60s, when airplanes were slower and smaller and didn’t need as much room to maneuver. Most newer airports are designed with improved ground traffic considerations, as well as increased arrival and departure rates.
The bottom line is that the number of aircraft flying and taxiing around our airports has continued to increase, but we haven’t built any major new airports in years. For now, we’re stuck with the impossible situation of more and more air travelers whose pilots don’t have the necessary facilities and technology available to serve their needs.
My Five Favorite Airports
1. Denver (DEN) 2. Salt Lake City (SLC) 3. Los Angeles (LAX) 4. San Diego (SAN) 5. Houston International (IAH)
Five Least Favorite Airports
1. LaGuardia (LGA) 2. Newark (EWR) 3. Kennedy (JFK) 4. Philadelphia (PHL) 5. San Francisco (SFO)
CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.