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    Which Southern California airport do travelers love most?
    • October 20, 2023

    Omara “Bombino” Moctar performing for ticketed passengers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Terminal 1 on Oct. 2. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

    We’re coming up on peak holiday flying season. It’s with disbelief, consternation and even dread that we realize the year is almost gone, we won’t achieve our New Year’s resolutions (again) and we must make myriad airline reservations for myriad people for myriad far-flung holiday festivities.

    “Los Angeles area airports,” we type into myriad search engines, staring blankly at the choices.

    SoCal residents have many more choices than most. There’s the gargantuan LAX, where you can nab direct flights all over the world. The large John Wayne Airport, with those thrillingly steep ascents but often steeper prices. There’s the medium-sized Hollywood Burbank, little Ontario and littler Palm Springs and Long Beach, a charming time machine back to 1955.

    Spoiler alert: No SoCal airport emerged as No. 1 in its category on the annual North America Airport Satisfaction Study by consumer data firm J.D. Power. But they’re doing better.

    The survey measures overall traveler satisfaction with terminal facilities, arrivals/departures, baggage claim, the security experience, check-in/baggage check and food, beverage and retail choices. It slices them into mega (including LAX), large (John Wayne) and medium (Hollywood/Burbank) categories.

    Hollywood Burbank Airport  (File photo by John McCoy, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    So how’d they do? Drum roll, please:

    • In 2021, LAX ranked 15th among North America’s 20 mega airports. In 2022, it dropped to 18th. This year, it climbed up to 14th. So it’s getting better, even as construction erupts all around.

    • In 2021, with the pandemic raging, there wasn’t enough sample to rank John Wayne. But Orange County’s airport won the silver medal in 2022 and 2023, holding on to second place among all 27 large airports. Nearby San Diego International trailed way behind at No. 23.

    • In 2021, there was not enough sample to rank Hollywood/Burbank either. But in 2022, it ranked last among North America’s medium-sized airports, climbing to second-to-last place this year.

    Passenger loads at Ontario, Palm Springs and Long Beach are too small to make the survey, officials at J.D. Power said.

    Who were the big winners? No. 1 spots went to Detroit Metropolitan in the mega category; Tampa International in the large category; and Indianapolis International in the medium category.

    When it comes to on-time performance among SoCal airports, LAX was tops for on-time arrivals and second only to wee Palm Springs International for on-time departures (which isn’t really a fair fight), according to federal data we crunched in the spring.

    Stars, works-in-progress

    We caught up with Michael Taylor, managing director of travel, hospitality and retail at J.D. Power, while he was sitting aboard a plane at San Diego International.

    Mega LAX saw improvements across the board this year. Some of that is because some construction is getting closer to completion, but there may be backsliding as other construction projects get underway.

    “LAX is just about the biggest construction project in the history of Los Angeles, including building the 405 and the 101,” Taylor said as flight announcements blared. “The way LAX is laid out, in a giant horseshoe, was great when it had 40 million passengers. It’s not so great with 80 million passengers. They’re building that people mover — but you have to look at the natural tendencies of Southern Californians to get in the car and drive where they want to go.”

    Though LAX’s overall rank was toward the bottom half for mega airports, it ranked in the upper half for food and beverage offerings, the survey found.

    Hollywood Burbank did not fare well among its medium-sized brethren. It’s one of the more difficult airports to access, it’s in desperate need of upgraded food and beverage offerings and the terminal also needs upgrading, travelers said.

    A passenger jet approaches the runway to land at John Wayne Airport in 2022.  (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Meanwhile, John Wayne is a star in the large airport category.

    It’s got solid food, beverage and retail offerings, is relatively easy to navigate, has decent parking right beside the airport — and it’s had a serenity makeover. Extraneous TV screens have been removed. The volume of announcements has dropped. It’s decorated in a calming taupe pallet. It has one of the smoothest TSA experiences, does well in the baggage claim department and can lay claim to having seized the No. 1 spot in years past.

    “Compared to LAX, it looks fantastic,” Taylor said.

    John Wayne Airport Director Charlene Reynolds was delighted with the feedback.

    “We are pleased that our efforts to elevate the guest experience are reflected in the customer satisfaction survey,” she said in a prepared statement. “The positive recognition we have received from guests and travel industry experts is a testament to our attention to detail.”

    But not everyone much loves the rankings.

    “Hollywood Burbank Airport does not currently subscribe to the J.D. Power Airport Satisfaction report. A paid subscription includes detailed information about results and methodology — where, when and how passengers are surveyed, and how many passengers take part. Since we don’t have access to that data, we aren’t in a position to accurately comment on BUR’s ranking,” said spokeswoman Nerissa Sugars by email.

    For the record, Taylor said some 28,000 people are queried for the survey.

    Busy season

    The airline industry continues to heal pandemic-inflicted wounds and pent-up demand continues to drive traffic ever higher. The wise advice is, as always, to shop early, aim for off-peak days and, unfortunately, prepare to pay more.

    The good news is that you’re likely to have a better airport experience than before.

    Despite the stresses of travel’s resurgence and the crush of passengers and bags, airport satisfaction is on the upswing just about everywhere, the survey found. Even New York’s LaGuardia, long one of the most miserable hellholes in the nation, has invested heavily in modernization and is reaping big praise. We hope some of that pixie dust spills onto Newark International.

    Happy passengers spend a lot more money at the airport, Taylor said.

    Demolition of an old rental car hub to make way for the new LAX Metro Connector in 2021. The project will connect LA Metro buses and trains to LAX via the new people mover, under construction in background. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that the number of flights rose 2.5% in July over the same month last year, and that U.S. airlines carried 87.8 million passengers. When adjusted for seasonality, July enplanements are up 0.3% from June and down 6.0% from the all-time high reached in January 2020, it said.

    Price Waterhouse Cooper predicts that the summer travel boom will continue into winter, with travel-related spending increasing a healthy 12% over last year.

    Oy! I need to get the kid home from college for Thanksgiving. And back to school again. And then home again for the winter holidays. And then the whole family to Florida to see my 96-year-old father. And then the kid back to college. …

    I’ll be lucky if I only spend 12% more than last year. Fire up the credit cards, and happy holidays!

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