During a press conference on April 30, 2013, President Barack Obama addressed a number of high-profile issues, including the fighting in Syria, the Boston Marathon attack, immigration legislation and the across-the-board cuts to federal spending known as the sequester.
On the sequester, Obama expressed his ambivalence about signing a bill that passed Congress a few days earlier. The bill, which would ease the sequester’s hit on the Federal Aviation Administration, moved quickly through the House and Senate amid public frustration. The flight delays stemmed from cuts to air traffic control staffing; the bill shifted $253 million from an airport improvement fund to the air traffic control system.
Obama said the pressure on air travelers left him with little choice but to sign the bill, but he also decried the piecemeal approach to solving the nation’s budget and infrastructure challenges.
If lawmakers were "seriously concerned about passenger convenience and safety," Obama said, "then they shouldn't just be thinking about tomorrow or next week or the week after that. They should be thinking about what's going to be happening five years from now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now. … How are we making sure that we're investing in things like rebuilding our airports and our roads and our bridges, and investing in early childhood education?"
Obama added: "There was a recent survey of the top airports … in the world, and there was not a single U.S. airport that came in the top 25. Not one U.S. airport was considered by the experts and consumers who use these airports to be in the top 25 in the world. I think Cincinnati airport came in around 30th. What does that say about our long-term competitiveness and future?"
We wondered whether this survey really showed U.S. airports to be such a dismal lot.
As it turns out, Obama got the numbers right. He was referring to the World Airport Awards, an independent, annual survey of 12 million travelers that ranks nearly 400 airports. The survey has been conducted by a British-based firm called Skytrax since 1999.
The top-ranked U.S. airport in the group’s 2013 survey was indeed Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in the 30th spot. The airports ranking higher than that include a dozen in Asia (including the top two, Singapore Changi Airport and Incheon International Airport), seven in Europe, three in Africa, two in Australia, and just one in North America (Vancouver International Airport, at No. 8).
In all, 17 U.S. airports cracked the top 100, with Denver 36th, San Francisco 40th, Atlanta 48th and none of the rest ending up higher than 50th.
The 2013 results were not a fluke: We checked the 2012 and 2011 surveys as well and found that the top U.S. airport in both years was also Cincinnati, ranking 24th.
We checked with Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International, a trade group for airports, to see what she thought of the rankings. She began by expressing skepticism about the survey’s rigor. (The firm says it surveys passengers online and by phone and uses systems to detect fraudulent submissions.)
She added that the U.S. faces some stiff challenges competing in a global comparison of this sort.
"Major international hubs in the U.S. are sometimes hampered by long immigration and security queues, which would hurt their rankings in comparison to an airport with primarily domestic service, such as Cincinnati," Gittens said. Cincinnati, which outperformed no fewer than 50 U.S. airports that have larger traffic, is hardly an international hub on the scale of New York’s JFK, Los Angeles or Miami.
Peter Miller, a spokesman for Skytrax, agreed. He said the U.S. may be suffering in the survey because of the importance of security processing and immigration to many passengers -- "not just actual waiting times, but also traveler treatment in these areas."
Gittens added that U.S. airports have a hard time competing with newer airports in Asia. In many countries, she said, "the national governments see their airports as key assets for their economic vitality and strive to make the visitors’ journey through the airport as smooth as possible."
So the rankings Obama cited should be taken with a grain of salt. More important, the rankings don’t entirely support the president’s argument that the federal government needs to spend more money "rebuilding our airports" and providing for "passenger convenience and safety."
Of the 39 factors that went into the survey’s rankings, we count only 13 that address airport capital improvements -- projects like terminal and waiting-area design, signage, public transit access, ease of navigation, and baggage-handling systems. Another five factors in the survey involve security.
This leaves a slight majority of factors that concern amenities and hospitality -- factors such as choice of bars, shopping options, restaurant prices, entertainment facilities, washroom cleanliness, availability of luggage trolleys, and "friendliness of airport staff."
"The survey covers a wide cross-section of amenities and facilities at every airport, but it is true to say that one of the most prominent sections is the focus on service, staff, convenience, and waiting times," said Peter Miller, a spokesman for Skytrax. "These are the issues that are of prime importance to travelers, and which cause the biggest distinction between airports worldwide."
Obama said the United States needs to invest more in its airports over the long term in part because "there was a recent survey of the top airports … in the world, and there was not a single U.S. airport that came in the top 25." He is spot-on about the rankings, but the survey in question offers only imperfect support for the argument that the federal government should invest more in its airports, since the survey measures not just major infrastructure aspects of airports (which the federal government would help fund) but also passenger amenities (something the government would not get directly involved in). We rate the claim Mostly True.