The Greatest Airport in America

Airports in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Dallas are spending billions of dollars to upgrade and remodel their airports to meet greater demand for modernized terminals, but the best airport I've been to is a small regional in Tallahassee, Florida.

Sep 29 2013, 4:25pm

Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. Photo by Flickr User Prayitno

As Americans continue to self-flagellate over the decrepitude of their transportation infrastructure, it has become more and more en vogue to demand improvements to our airports. Donald Trump, billionaire and professional asshole, recently referred to American aiports as “third world” compared with Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Mr. Trump failed to realize that most Americans will never be able to afford to go to Qatar and think Abu Dhabi is either a character from the movie Aladdin or something you order at an Indian restaurant. 

Congestion, delays, lack of luxury amenities, and poor customer service are some of the most popular gripes cited when travelers are surveyed about their trips. In the face of this criticism, airports across the nation are dropping big bucks to spruce up their digs. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta spent $1.4 billion to upgrade their international terminal, adding 12 new gates, a bunch of art installations, giant glass windows, and a separate entrance for international passengers.  

Nowhere did I see anything on that list of improvements about “places to plug in your phone” or “restaurants that don't charge people eight dollars for a bagel,” but I can report that Atlanta's airport does have the finest smokers' lounge in the entire American South. If you're looking for great conversation, and even greater exposure to toxic chemicals, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is your first (and maybe your final) destination.

Renvoations are also taking place at JFK, San Diego, Dallas-Fort Worth, and LAX. The LAX expansion of Tom Bradley International Terminal is thus far garnering less than stellar reviews for neglecting the kinds of improvements the everyday passenger not named “Donald Trump” is praying for. There's still no free, reliable wifi at LAX. The existing complimentary wi-fi in the Tom Bradley International Terminal is only free for 45 minutes and makes simple tasks like checking email or downloading a screenshot from the Kim Kardashian sex tape in the bathroom nearly impossible due to crippling connectivity issues. 

An LAX spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that “new giant video screens on the walls offer hours of entertainment for waiting travelers.” If that “entertainment” involves the same Anderson Cooper news report on “brave hurricane survivors picking up the pieces” playing on a continuous loop, then count me out. 

Tallahassee Regional Airport. Photo by Flickr User Keenan Pepper

If you're looking for real fun, may I recommend Tallahassee Regional Airport? It's almost completely empty at all hours of the day, so getting through security is a breeze. The most expensive part or the terminal is the X-ray machine, but that doesn't mean it's not a better place to wait for a flight than the trumped-up shopping malls in LA, New York, and Atlanta. That might seem counterintuitive to those expecting a place to buy a “genuine leather handbag,” but allow me to count the ways this small, plucky regional terminal tickled the long hairs on my balls.

Does LAX have an arcade?! Last time I checked, the answer was a big “no.” Also, major plus points for the clever portmanteau “Aircade.” The fact that it took this long for there to be a unique word for “arcade inside an airport” is shocking, yet also another example of why the English language is severely lacking in subtlety.

If you don't know what a portmanteau is, then come get yourself some book learnin' at Florida A&M's convenient satellite location. Register before an outgoing flight, crack your books in the air, then pop in for a quick one-unit comparative literature course (complete with multiple choice final exam) during your layover on the way home! Florida A&M's airport annex gives a whole new meaning to the term, “higher” learning!

Photo by Flickr User Keenan Pepper

Ever get hopelessly lost looking for your gate at your local international airport? Do you find it impossible to navigate the cacophony of duty-free shops, electronics stores, and kitschy bars on your way to the plane? Tallahassee Regional has you covered there too. There's an A gate... and a B gate. There's no way you can fuck that up. Also, most of the flights go to Atlanta. The rest, I imagine, are either bound for Bogota, Colombia or into the Bermuda Triangle, never to be seen again. Also, you can tell from the above photo that there's no annoying TV screens to distract you from the latest Sue Grafton novel you just picked up from the newsstand. A is for Awesome!

What travelers actually, truly care about is getting to their destination on time and in one piece. When I went to Tallahasse Regional, my flight was delayed, as so many are in this country, but the clerk at the gate immediately put me on a flight leaving a full hour earlier than I was supposed to depart so that I didn't miss my connecting flight back to Los Angeles. That's the kind of efficiency and customer service that is usually lacking at big airports. 

The most popular solution to the myriad problems facing the airline industry in the United States is bigger and more expensive. LAX, JFK, DFW, and others keep growing and morphing into little cities unto themselves. They build art installations, sculptures, and gaudy lobbies to distract people from the reality that flying is a painful, laborious process. Silly stuff like the arcade and the Florida A&M office at Tallahassee Regional are the low-budget versions of the expensive trinkets being added to big airports. No one actually needs that stuff. They just want to go home. America needs smaller, stripped down, efficient airports that are focused on the task of transporting you from point A to point B. We don't need a billion dollar carnival that happens to have some airplanes circling in the background. I'll take Tallahassee Regional over Abu Dhabi any day.

Dave Schilling's new book, Letters from my Therapist, could be the best collection of humor essays to read during a long layover. You're guaranteed to forget all about the $25 lunch you ordered. It's available on Amazon and iBookstore. Just don't try to download it off the LAX wifi.


More travel stories from Dave Schilling:

The Whitest Vacation Destination in America

I Went to an Abandoned Nazi Ranch

Comic-Con Parties Are Where Nerds Go to Feel Sexy