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Airport Face-Off: Which Alternative Hubs Are the Best?

If you're heading to Buffalo, do you really care if Albuquerque has a "better" airport? That's the big problem I have with those "best airport" surveys you see so often—they seem to imply that you can choose airports as easily as you choose airlines. Most of the time, of course, your choice is limited. But some situations do offer airport choice, and the best way to rate airports is to compare them among real-world alternatives. Airport-choice opportunities occur in two situations: when you can "hub" through different airports on connecting flights and when your destination city or area has more than one airport.

Although some of those best-airport surveys cover a lot of extraneous measures, including food service, retail, parking, and such, what really matters is the likelihood of having your flight delayed or canceled. I calculated a composite "risk" index based on Bureau of Transportation Statistics data that combines percentages of flights delayed and flights canceled covering 11 months of the year 2011.

Overall, percentages of flights delayed at the biggest U.S. airports vary less than you'd think: Delayed flights ranged from 13 percent to 29 percent of total flights, but half of the big airports fell into a narrower range of 16 percent to 20 percent. Similarly, delayed flights ranged from less than half a percent to 5.1 percent, but half fell into a narrower range of 1.2 percent to 2.6 percent.

If your itinerary requires a connection, you're most likely to make that connection at a big airline's major hub or one of the big coastal gateway airports. And the data show some substantial differences in composite "risk" scored among the big connecting airports:

  • The least risky airports for making connections are Seattle, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Chicago/Midway, Denver, Houston/Intercontinental, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Detroit. This finding may come as a surprise: Several presumed "bad weather" airports are actually among the best at minimizing problems.
  • At the opposite end of the spectrum, you're most likely to encounter delays and cancellations at Newark, New York/La Guardia, Chicago/O'Hare, Boston, San Francisco, and New York/JFK.

The four giant "legacy" airlines all operate multiple major hubs, and you can sometimes find acceptable fares and itineraries through more than one. If you have that choice:

  • On American, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Miami beat Chicago/O'Hare.
  • On Delta, Salt Lake City beats the other three, and—another surprise—Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul do a bit better than Atlanta.
  • On United (including former Continental hubs), Denver and Houston beat Washington/Dulles, and all three beat Chicago/O'Hare, Newark, and San Francisco.
  • On US Airways, Phoenix and Charlotte beat Philadelphia.

You also find quite a spread among different airports in cities with more than one important airport:

  • Boston: Manchester and Providence beat Logan.
  • Chicago: Midway beats O'Hare.
  • Houston: Hobby beats Intercontinental.
  • Los Angeles area: Long Beach, Orange County, and Ontario beat LAX and Burbank.
  • New York: JFK beats La Guardia and Newark, but all three have bad scores.
  • San Francisco Bay area: Oakland and San Jose beat San Francisco International.
  • Washington area: Baltimore beats both Washington airports.

One other difference can be of importance if your destination is a multi-airport city: good public transit access to the city center. The BTS data doesn't cover this, but available information shows some differences:

  • Boston: Logan beats Manchester and Providence, although service at Logan is not as convenient as in several other big cities.
  • Chicago: Both airports enjoy good public transit to the Loop, but the popular "Near North" area is more of a problem.
  • New York: Both JFK and Newark have good public transit access to Manhattan; La Guardia is better for taxis.
  • San Francisco: International has good public transit to the center; the others do not (although Oakland is building a system).
  • Washington: Reagan National has excellent transit service to the center.
  • Houston and Los Angeles: None of the airports provides good public transit access.

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Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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