San Francisco International Airport is unusually quiet thanks to strict rules regarding ground announcements.
San Francisco International Airport works hard to make travelers forget they’re in an airport.
Due to strict restrictions on ground announcements about lost items, changing gates and boarding groups, the place is eerily quiet, even at peak hours. Signs urge travelers to use headphones while walking through the terminal and waiting for flights.
Passengers can take in the yoga rooms, museum, art exhibits, and outposts of local restaurants like Bun Mee and Boudin Bakery, or listen to the occasional live music. The new contactless water refill stations have hot, cold and room temperature settings and could soon dispense free seltzer.
That’s little comfort when flights are delayed — a chronic problem given the city’s signature smog — but great for a great airport experience when things go well. Since travel began to resume in 2021, things have been going smoothly at SFO.
Despite major travel problems in other cities, the airport operates more than 80% on time, which is 10 points higher than the pre-pandemic level.
The one-two punch of more reliable flights and top-notch facilities has elevated the airport to the top spot. The Wall Street Journal‘s first ranking of the country’s busiest airports since 2019. Atlanta and Minneapolis filled the top three.
Each stands out in a time of turmoil in the travel industry, as passenger churn brings back familiar travel frustrations such as long security lines, flight cancellations and expensive airfares, along with labor and aircraft shortages.
This year’s airport report card ranks the 50 largest U.S. airports on 19 factors, from on-time performance and security expectations to JD Power customer satisfaction scores and ticket prices. Reliability is most important to passengers and carries the most weight in our ratings.
The airports are divided into two categories: the 20 largest airports by the number of passengers and the 30 medium-sized airports.
Sacramento International Airport, just 100 miles northeast of SFO and a contender for some Northern California fliers, earned the top spot among mid-sized airports and the highest score overall.
Airport director Cindy Nichol, formerly of San Francisco International, attributes Sacramento’s high score to good weather, plenty of runway space and customer service.
He says the airport landscaper even reaches out directly to travelers and earns praise from passengers.
San Diego and San Jose airports ranked No. 2 and No. 3 among medium-sized airports, creating the California trifecta.
The worst performers in the large and medium classes were Newark and LaGuardia Airports, respectively. Both are plagued by flight delays and other issues, but have big plans to make amends.
LaGuardia’s physical makeover is already well underway, and after a while you won’t recognize the place. Newark’s new Terminal A debuts in early December.
It says a lot about the complexity of air travel that the airports at the top or bottom of our rankings didn’t shine or stink in every area.
San Francisco and Minneapolis had among the highest domestic ticket prices in the country. Washington Dulles, Charlotte, NC and Salt Lake City lead the list.
Florida’s airports, which generally fared poorly due to congested airspace, had the lowest ticket prices due to intense competition from budget carriers such as Spirit Airlines.
And let’s not forget that the industry is effectively rated on the curve on many metrics: an 80% on-time performance rate still means 20% of flights are delayed. And the US government’s definition of on-time flight — flights arriving and departing less than 15 minutes behind schedule — would make Swiss watchmakers shudder.
San Francisco’s top ranking is sure to be a head-scratcher for travelers who’ve been misted there over the years.
But it makes perfect sense to Sean Swalin, who knows San Francisco only in time.
The 49-year-old corporate real estate executive moved to the city from the East Coast during the pandemic and has had nothing but positive reviews. He travels weekly and has had only minor flight delays and one flight cancellation, the latter due to the pilot’s nosebleed.
Mr. Swalin easily navigates the airport through parking security and likes the multiple security checkpoints that eliminate airport bottlenecks with centralized screening.
“It’s a dream,” says Mr. Swalin, whose previous airports were Philadelphia and Raleigh-Durham, NC.
The airport has made adjustments to reduce delays and cancellations, says San Francisco Airport Director Ivar Satero, who has worked there for nearly 30 years and managed the site for the past six.
These include adopting Federal Aviation Administration final landing procedures that allow both parallel runways to be used in low visibility conditions and investing $10 million in new GPS landing technology.
When bad weather hit in early November, thanks to new GPS technology, the airport handled 37 flights an hour. A typical day works 60 hours per hour.
“Five years ago it would have been down to 25 flights an hour,” says airport spokesman Doug Yakel, who worked in operations for Virgin America and United Airlines before joining the airport in 2010.
Mr. Satero says these systems and other upgrades, including additional gates, will help the airport manage operations once business fully returns, which he expects to be within the next two years.
Before the pandemic, the airport invested in serving 72 million passengers, up from 58 million at the time. About 40 million passengers will pass this year.
Mr. Satero said he was encouraged by how smoothly operations went during the morning rush hour, when traffic can be as heavy as it was before the pandemic.
Whether San Francisco can retain its crown is in question. Airport improvements will continue at the city-owned airport, where large expenditures will continue, but timely statistics may not be forthcoming.
That’s because the big improvement in reliability is due to the pandemic, not airport magic.
The number of flights and passengers at United’s hub, SFO, has declined sharply since 2019, unlike most major airports. Both figures fell by more than 25% in the year to August, according to airport statistics.
United CEO Scott Kirby calls it the least recovering major air travel market in the country.
He blames the slow recovery of travel in San Francisco on the region’s tech companies, which have not returned business travel to pre-pandemic levels and likely won’t anytime soon, given recent belt-tightening and continued Covid restrictions in key Asian markets, particularly China.
Hong Kong, the airport’s second largest international market after London before the pandemic, only recently opened. Cathay Pacific recently resumed service, but with some of its regular flights. Qantas, Air China and China Eastern have yet to return.
Fewer flights mean less traffic, plus a cushion in case of weather or other issues. Mr Kirby says that rather than having weather-related delays surge after midnight, airlines can catch up sooner.
He visited San Francisco earlier this month and said that employees there were baffled by the airline’s performance and hoped it would continue. “About everything [the airport] it feels different.”
Mr. Kirby says the lesson from San Francisco’s strong showing is that an airport shines when it has enough flights relative to its capacity.
“When they were dealt the cards they could win, they won,” he says.
Mr Kirby says when flights are delayed, “it’s a guaranteed bad experience for customers”.
Exhibit A, Newark, where United also has its headquarters.
Mr. Kirby is pressuring the FAA to impose flight restrictions at the New Jersey airport and ground its own flights during the summer to ease congestion.
Newark airport officials say the number of flights depends on the FAA and the airport can only do what it can to support operations.
The FAA said it does not have enforcement authority at Newark and that demand for takeoff and landing times at Newark is governed by voluntary cooperation and schedule adjustments negotiated by the airlines and the FAA.