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If the United States Is A Serious Country, Why Can't It Build A Serious Airport?
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The Wright brothers of Dayton invented heavier-than-air flight. Ever since, aviation has seemed overwhelmingly American in inspiration and culture. One result is that just as the global language of music is Italian, the global language of air traffic control is English.

Yet a funny thing happened on America’s way to total domination of aviation: U.S. airports have consistently slithered down the global league tables and have now become a byword for inconvenience and outright dysfunction.

The trend is affirmed in the latest league table of airport quality compiled by the London-based Skytrax aviation consultancy. On Skytrax’s figures, America’s best airport, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, ranks an underwhelming 27 globally. No less than eighteen nations boast better airports. In order, they are Singapore, Korea, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Japan, China, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Denmark, Taiwan, Finland, Malaysia, Australia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and South Africa.

Some nations are home to more than one great airport. Japan has four in the top twenty, and Germany two.

But the big news this year is China. Let’s set aside for a moment the achievements of the two ethnically Chinese city enclaves of Singapore and Hong Kong, whose international airports rank respectively 1 and 4 in the Skytrax league table. In China proper, the story is of stunning rises in rank. No less than eight mainland Chinese airports now figure in the global top 100, up from just five in 2013. Two mainland Chinese airports now rank in the top 20: Beijing Capital at 7 and Shanghai Hongqiao at 15. Meanwhile Chengdu has rocketed from 182 to 94.

The average rank of the Chinese airports in the top 100 has risen from 77.1 to 49.6. As for the fourteen American airports on the list, their average rank has actually fallen slightly – from 72.5 in 2013 to 72.6 in 2014.

Why does the United States continue to lose altitude in a game that it once dominated? A full answer would require consideration of countless factors but for me one factor is decisive: ideology. Modern American economic ideology makes it almost impossible to run a serious airport. Airport administrators seem to have renounced any sincere concern with improving their passengers’ experience. Their attitude brings to mind a famous light-bulb joke: how many free-market economists are needed to change a light-bulb? None. They just wait for the invisible hand to do it.

Whereas airports in other parts of the world are designed with travelers’ real needs in mind, many American airports seem to view passengers merely as sheep to be shorn. Airport administrators focus narrowly on maximizing retail rents and design their spaces to inveigle passengers into splurging on designer dresses, perfume, and consumer electronics. Other aspects of the airport experience hardly figure.


By contrast in East Asia in particular, it is axiomatic that passengers should be viewed as more than mere consumers. They are human beings with human needs and prime among such needs is that ground transport links be seamless, fast, and clean. Typically, state-of-the-art rail links are housed within airport terminals and there are plenty of hotels within a few minutes.

Singapore’s Changi airport goes one better: it features budget-priced transit hotels right within its terminals. For little more than $60 (U.S.), travelers have access to small bedrooms where they can have forty winks as they wait for a connection. The rooms are equipped with private toilets and showers. Meanwhile Changi features plentiful of facilities for parents with children, ranging from play areas to diaper-changing facilities to swimming pools. For more information on Changi’s facilities click here.

The problem with American airports is a lack of political leadership. If a nation wants decent infrastructure, it is not sufficient to leave matters to the vagaries of the market and of political lobbying. You need strong non-partisan public institutions that can see the big picture and treat people as human beings, not just consumers.

(Republished from Forbes by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Economics • Tags: Airports 
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