February 8, 2023

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How SFO ended up ranked as America’s best airport

In this week’s roundup, a comprehensive study of airport data by the Wall Street Journal concludes that San Francisco International is the nation’s best large airport and ranks Sacramento first among midsize facilities; a regional airlines group warns of an impending “collapse” of air service to smaller cities due to a pilot shortage; Alaska Airlines drops an LAX route; Sun Country won’t return to Hawaii but adds several domestic routes; Frontier adds a Phoenix route, and Spirit grows at San Antonio; Delta partner LATAM plans a new California route to Brazil, plus international route news from United, British Airways, Air Serbia, Frontier and Canada Jetlines; Alaska improves its airport lounges but raises membership costs and tightens up entry policies; and Delta Sky Clubs start to give expedited access to the airline’s top customers as crowding continues. 

The Wall Street Journal took a data dive into statistics about the nation’s 50 largest airports. It concluded that San Francisco International and Sacramento International ranked No. 1 in their respective categories. SFO came out in first place among the 20 busiest U.S. airports in terms of passenger numbers, and SMF took the top spot among 30 midsize facilities. The newspaper said it examined data on 19 factors in its rankings, ranging from airlines’ on-time performance to average ticket prices, security line waiting time, costs at airport concessions, the results of J.D. Power’s annual survey of passenger satisfaction and more. 

At San Francisco International, “Passengers can retreat to yoga rooms, a museum, art exhibits and outposts of local restaurants like Bun Mee and Boudin Bakery or catch occasional live music. New touchless water-filling stations have hot, cold and room temperature settings and might soon dispense free seltzer,” the Journal said. “It’s all scant comfort when flights are delayed—a chronic problem given the city’s signature fog—but a topper to a great airport experience when things go well.” At Sacramento, the article said, benefits for travelers include the airport’s good weather, abundant runway space and helpful customer service. “The airport’s landscapers even pitch in to direct travelers.”

Among the 20 busiest airports, Atlanta ranked second, followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles International. At the bottom of the rankings were Newark Liberty (a United hub) and New York JFK. Besides Sacramento, other California airports performed well in the midsize airport rankings, with San Diego in second place, Mineta San Jose ranking third, Orange County in ninth place and Oakland in the tenth spot. Midsize airports with the worst scores were San Juan, Puerto Rico; New York LaGuardia; and Washington Reagan National.

The main runway at Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in June 2021, near Healdsburg, Calif.

George Rose/Getty Images

We’ve reported several times this year about major carriers dropping service to various smaller cities, often because their regional airline partners didn’t have enough pilots to maintain their schedules. Now the Regional Airline Association has issued a stark warning that travelers who fly to smaller airports in the U.S. may have to find new ways to get there in the future. That organization, whose regional carrier members provide 43% of the nation’s scheduled passenger flights, took a look at the big picture and learned that “the ongoing, severe pilot shortage has led to diminished or lost air service at 76% of U.S. airports,” based on a study of schedule data for October 2022 versus the same month in 2019.

“We are on the precipice of a wholesale collapse of small community air service,” RAA CEO Faye Malarkey Black said. “It has already begun, with 60 U.S. airports losing more than half their air service since 2019. Every policymaker in the Administration and Congress must set aside politics and address this crisis today.” 

RAA said its member carriers have taken more than 500 aircraft out of service because they don’t have enough pilots to fly them, and as a result, airline service has been reduced to 324 cities and towns nationwide — including 14 airports that “have lost all scheduled commercial air service — a number that is still rising.” It noted that this is just the culmination of a decadelong pilot shortage that has faced the regional carrier industry. Since 2009, RAA said, the number of U.S. airports with scheduled airline service has declined by 5%, and those that kept service have fewer flights to fewer destinations. “These trends are accelerating; between 2019 and 2022, 161 U.S. airports lost more than one in four of their commercial flights,” RAA said. The organization said the industry and government should work together on efforts like improved student loans for pilot training, and it urged the Federal Aviation Administration “to make data-driven decisions on additional, advanced training pathways allowed under current law.”  

A Sun Country Airlines Boeing 737 takes off from LAX is August 2020.

A Sun Country Airlines Boeing 737 takes off from LAX is August 2020.

AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

In California route news, Alaska Airlines is due to drop its Los Angeles-Salt Lake City service on Nov. 30; on the same date, it’s scheduled to introduce daily flights between Paine Field in Everett, Washington, and Anchorage, Alaska. The low-cost Minnesota-based carrier Sun Country Airlines had hoped to revive its San Francisco-Honolulu and LAX-Honolulu flights next summer, but now those plans have been dropped due to rising fuel costs, according to simpleflying.com. Those routes were suspended last April. At the same time, Sun Country plans to begin service on 13 domestic routes this spring, all from its Minneapolis-St. Paul home base. The destinations are Charlotte, North Carolina; New York JFK; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit; Richmond, Virginia; Omaha, Nebraska; Kansas City, Missouri; Wilmington, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Traverse City, Michigan; and Rapid City, South Dakota. Most routes will get two flights a week, with starting dates from April through June. 

Last week, Frontier Airlines introduced new daily service from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Baltimore-Washington International. Spirit Airlines has added San Antonio, Texas, to its route map, starting up daily flights last week to Las Vegas and Orlando; it will expand its San Antonio activity on March 8, when it adds daily service to Baltimore-Washington and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the Northeast, Delta will realign a few commuter routes on Jan. 9, beginning service to Binghamton, New York, and State College, Pennsylvania, from New York LaGuardia, as well as service from New York JFK to Ithaca, New York. At the same time, Delta will discontinue flights to those three cities from its Detroit hub.

A woman rides a bicycle on Danube Bridge in Belgrade, Serbia, in December 2015.

A woman rides a bicycle on Danube Bridge in Belgrade, Serbia, in December 2015.

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In international route news, West Coast residents will get a new option for travel to Brazil in 2023. LATAM Airlines Group, a joint venture partner of Delta, plans to introduce Los Angeles-Sao Paulo flights on July 1 — the only nonstop service between LAX and Brazil. The 777-300ER flight will operate three days a week. United Airlines has revived service to Cuba, offering daily flights to Havana from its hubs at Newark Liberty and Houston Bush Intercontinental. United had suspended the routes in early 2020. British Airways will add a new U.S. gateway next summer, launching five flights a week from Cincinnati to London Heathrow beginning June 5.

Planning a trip to Serbia? Air Serbia said it will introduce Chicago O’Hare-Belgrade service next year, operating two flights a week as of May 17 and increasing to three a week June 12. It will be the airline’s second U.S. route (New York JFK-Belgrade being the other). Frontier Airlines has started flying a new international route from Atlanta, offering three flights a week to San Jose, Costa Rica. A new Canadian carrier called Canada Jetlines plans to begin its first transborder service on Jan. 19 with four A320 flights a week from Toronto to Las Vegas; the carrier started out flying from Toronto to Calgary and expects to add Toronto-Vancouver flights this winter.

An Alaska Airlines maintenance hanger at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in September 2021.

An Alaska Airlines maintenance hanger at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in September 2021.

George Rose/Getty Images

Alaska Airlines is making some improvements to its airport lounge network, but membership in the program will cost more. The airline said on its website that effective Jan. 1, the cost of membership in its standard Alaska Lounge program will increase from $450 to $500, and its Alaska Lounge+ plan will rise from $600 to $650. The standard plan includes access to the airline’s nine airport lounges, while the enhanced one includes access to those facilities plus another 90 lounges of partner carriers. Alaska has three lounges in Seattle-Tacoma, two in Portland, and one each in San Francisco International, Los Angeles, New York JFK and Anchorage. The airline is also tightening up on its Alaska Lounge policy for first-class passengers. On first-class tickets booked Nov. 18 or later, for travel starting Feb. 15, free lounge access will no longer be available on nonstop or connecting flights of shorter than 2,100 miles, although first-class flyers on shorter trips will be able to buy a discounted $30 day pass for lounge access.  

Alaska opened an expanded C Concourse lounge at Seattle-Tacoma this week, adding 3,000 square feet and doubling the seating capacity to 120. On Jan. 7, Alaska said, its D Concourse lounge at Sea-Tac will close down into the summer for a project that will give it 30% more seating, a barista station, and new food and beverage options. At Portland International, the airline has expanded its main lounge by 1,000 square feet and added an “express lounge” in Concourse B.

Delta is also making some rule changes for access to its crowded Delta Sky Clubs. The popular clubs are so busy, according to the Points Guy, that Delta is creating special lanes at the entrance doors for its very best customers, giving them priority access over regular Sky Club members during peak hours. The priority entrance lane is for Delta One (i.e., international business class) customers, members of the airline’s invitation-only Delta 360 group, SkyMiles Diamond Medallion elites and first-class flyers.

Delta may be contributing to Sky Club crowding with its entry policies. “Of all the U.S. airlines, Delta is the most generous with lounge access,” the Points Guy remarked. “Anyone with Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express has access to the Sky Club, along with the carrier’s long-haul business-class passengers, Sky Club members and top-tier flyers selecting a lounge membership as their annual perk. Delta doesn’t yet operate business-class-only lounges, which further exacerbates the overcrowding issue for its popular Sky Clubs.” The special entry lanes are expected mainly outside Sky Clubs at Delta’s busiest hub airports.