The answer is a mix of history and geography.
U.S. airports’ low rank in the world is so uncontroversial that Vice President Joseph Biden even publicly commented that this is an area where America’s biggest rival shines.
“If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities in the middle of the night just so they could see it and then said: ‘which one is in America and which one is in China?’ Most Americans would say: ‘That great one is in America.’ It’s not,” Vice President Biden said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
U.S. airports failed to even crack the top 25 in the most recent rankings of air- ports by SkyTrax, which President Barack Obama used to argue for more infrastructure spending. Asian, Middle Eastern, and European airports outdo American ones for several reasons.
Why Is It So Difficult?
First, the U.S. is a mature market with built infrastructure that makes it nearly impossible to aim for ambitious master-planned airport cities. Unlike emerging countries with plenty of land to build, it is much more expensive to expand. A century of outdated planning means that airports are often very far from the urban core, surrounded by unattractive businesses such as warehouses and undesirable housing.
Also, since the U.S. is so massive and multi-polar, there isn’t a single international hub to act as a welcome mat to the world. American airports are really gateways to metropolitan regions, rather than the country itself. Compared to other airports, even the most global American one is chiefly domestic.
Only 48% of arrivals to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the biggest port of entry to the States, come from abroad, according to JCDecaux. JFK only had 1,899,308 international passengers pass through in January, 2013, a bit more than half that Bangkok Suvarnabhumi had in the same month.
By contrast, the vast majority of arrivals to airports such as Singapore’s Changi come from abroad. Especially for smaller countries, a classy, modern airport is a sign of the country’s emergence to the world stage, a form of “soft power” that impresses foreign visitors.
U.S. airports are also held back logistically because the the nature of their business models. As Qin Zhang of Shanghai International Airport notes in her paper,10 “Comprehensive Review of Airport Busi- ness Models,” almost all American airports are owned by local governments, but are mostly privately operated. Most receive little public funds, aside from Federal Aviation Administration grants for safety and capacity expansion.
For more on this trend, get our new in-depth report: “Airports as Destinations: The Rise of User Experience.” This report will show how the changing business environment is turning airports into more welcoming places. It will explain the history and context for the trend and what’s coming next.
Photo credit: This closed McDonald's is one of the many abandoned restaurants and shops in the now-closed Concourse C at Greater Cincinnati International Airport. Travis Estell / Flickr