In 2016 America, the words “going to the airport” have the same effect on your blood pressure as hearing the words “internal audit.” What was once a pretty basic experience -- go, check a bag, get on a plane -- is now an ordeal that makes you look and feel about as good as someone studying for a state bar exam.
US airports may be riddled with long security lines, irritating people, and endless noise, but it’s not like that all over the world. Airports in Asia, Europe, and some parts of the Middle East are absolutely crushing the United States when it comes to modernization and atmosphere. And it’s doing some serious damage to our global competitiveness.
Air travel is a key economic indicator
To understand why we need to update our airports, you must first understand why air travel is such a huge economic indicator. If you’re into reading 18-page papers from MIT economists on the topic, by all means, take a gander. If you're not, nobody's gonna blame you -- here's the TL;DR:
Air travel and the economy have a codependent relationship. Air travel brings business and leisure travelers, who in turn spend money and improve the economy. More money means more jobs for locals, who in turn, spend that money going places... on airplanes! Which leads to more flights, more competition, and lower prices. And now with more -- and cheaper -- flights, even more people visit the area, and the economy continues to grow. The cycle continues.
So, basically, the more people flying TO your region, the better your economy will be. And the biggest roadblock to increasing those numbers? Infrastructure.
Our airports don’t measure up
Which brings us to the collectively crappy condition of most US airports. As Americans, we’ve just come to accept that airports are loud, crowded, stress-inducing places where the general highlight is paying $2 extra for a double. Sure, we’ve added some better food options, and, if you’re in San Francisco, a yoga room, but on a global scale our airports are pretty miserable places.
“Overseas airports are quiet and relaxing,” says Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and the author of Cockpit Confidential and askthepilot.com. “In Asia, the airports are incredibly efficient. Everything is streamlined, it’s amazing and it just drives you crazy why we can’t figure that out. Ours are just nightmarish.”
Seoul's airport has a golf course. Singapore has got a butterfly and sunflower garden. At sunny LAX, your only outdoor option is a smoking area.
Many overseas airports have “sleeping pods,” where stranded passengers can catch some Zs in a microroom without having to leave the terminal. In America we have MicroSuites... in THREE airports. So unless you're flying through Atlanta, Philly, or DFW, your only in-terminal option is the chateau de floor.
You get the point. While a lot of countries have created an enjoyable, efficient airport experience, we’ve added a couple of Wolfgang Pucks and said, “Eh, that’ll do.” That's why when Skytrax asked nearly 13 million passengers to rank the world's airports for its annual survey, not a single US airport was in the top 25. Not one.
In fact, when Skytrax developed an airport star-rating system similar to those used for hotels, no US airport received a top, five-star rating. The only two that got four stars were San Francisco and Cincinnati, and when your country's hub of innovation is Southern Ohio/Northern Kentucky, maybe it’s time to make some changes. Even if Cincy does have such a gorgeous skyline.
You see, most major US airports were built early in the commercial aviation game. And while they were located in places with plenty of land for expansion, the growing city around them eventually snatched up all that property. Now many (cough::LAX::cough) are stuck serving millions more passengers than they were designed for and are in desperate need of improvement. Some even need to be razed and replaced. Looking at you LGA.
And don't even get us started on our air traffic control system. That's only 40 years out of date.
The solution is simple, but it's probably gonna piss you off
So why has the rest of the world eclipsed us? It’s not because we enjoy standing in 30-minute lines for pretzels and sleeping on airport floors. It’s because the federal government doesn't want to invest in airport infrastructure. And the reason for that is pretty simple; because it involves increasing the passenger facility charge.
The passenger facility charge -- or PFC -- is a $4.50-per-segment charge you probably barely notice on your e-mail confirmation when you buy an airline ticket. It’s levied by local airports to fund operations, but Congress controls how much they can levy. And Congress hasn’t authorized them to raise it... SINCE 2000! Which means airports have been stuck using local and federal tax money -- as well as their own revenue -- to make any improvements. And, well, we see how well that’s gone.
Unlike a lot of other taxes, the PFC is a user tax that is reinvested directly into airport infrastructure. Which basically means that the people who use the airports are the ones paying to make them better. And since improved airport infrastructure is a proven economic driver, it’s the rare tax that actually shows a return on investment.
Some travel groups argue that raising the tax would discourage travel -- airline tickets are high enough as it is, right? -- but even doubling it would only add a whopping $9 per round trip ticket. Or roughly one-third of what you pay to check your bag (which you should absolutely do, btw, for all of our sakes). One way. In an era where extra fees are the norm, adding less than ten bucks to the cost of a ticket seems like a small price to pay for improving our global competitiveness.
According to the US Travel Association, doubling the PFC would contribute over $2.5 BILLION to our nation’s airports, and actually allow them to use FEWER federal tax dollars. As Mel Allen used to say, how ‘bout that.
We’re not getting up on a soapbox here (OK, we kinda are, but still... ), just pointing out how important updating the country's airports is to our relative position in the global economy. And also, to our general sanity. Seriously, shouldn't we support anything that will make flying in America tolerable again?
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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist who thinks $2 more for a double is a sucker bet. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.