In the grand days of railroad travel, passengers arrived in monumental terminals. There was grandeur, style and comfort — qualities that today's equivalent for long-distance travel, the airport, mostly lack. Especially in the United States.
In a survey of international travelers by the British firm Skytrax, not a single U.S. airport ranked anywhere near the top of the list. Singapore got top honors, while the best the United States could do was Cincinnati's airport — which came in at No. 30.
So what makes the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport the top-ranked in the U.S.? I decided to fly there to find out.
The Midwestern Touch
When you arrive at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (airport code CVG), one of the first things you hear is a welcome message recorded by Marty Brennaman, the voice of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.
It's one of the touches that airport customer service director Brian Cobb highlights — the airport's Midwestern charm.
"If you're a visitor, you get an immediate sense of culture and touch and feel of what our community is like, instead of the industrialized traditional airport of back in the day," Cobb says.
That includes the presence of volunteers like Charlotte Davis, who's working at an information counter. Her job is "to tell people where to go — and I'm darn good at it," she says with a laugh.
Davis adds she helps people with "whatever they need."
The Cincinnati airport has about every amenity an air traveler could desire. It's light and airy. There are plenty of places to shop and eat, and lots of power outlets and USB connectors. It's got free Wi-Fi.
Cobb says even the bathrooms are designed with business travelers in mind.
"I'm going to be carrying a briefcase potentially or a purse, how do I make sure that that doesn't get wet? So having the ability place it next to the sink where it's in close reach — it's never out of my possession — but I know that it's going to remain dry," he says.
The Business Traveler's Seal Of Approval
The attention to detail, the cleanliness and friendly service is why Ray Niemeyer says he makes it a point to connect through CVG on his business flights.
"I have the option through Delta to go through Atlanta, Cincinnati and Detroit, and I typically try to go through Cincinnati because of the tighter connections and the better service I've had than the other two cities," he says.
There are other amenities: a train to take travelers between terminals; jetway walls decorated with pictures of Cincinnati landmarks.
The only things CVG lacks are flights and passengers. The airport, actually located in northern Kentucky, was a major hub for Delta, but the airline sharply cut back its service after it merged with Northwest in 2008. The flights that do remain are expensive, and air travelers have been lured away to other airports in the region served by Southwest, where fares are lower.
So, What Makes A Good Airport?
Mark Perryman, president of Landrum and Brown, an airport planning consulting firm based in Cincinnati, says the makings of a good airport are all in the flow — from parking garage to gate.
"Making sure that flow is smooth and easy for a passenger to understand, easy for a passenger to find their way — that's what makes a good airport," he says. "And the better airports have [a] very smooth flow of passengers not waiting in long queues or lines for security or even concessions, waiting for that hot dog or picking up that magazine."
Perryman says the TSA security experience is also a big factor in traveling satisfaction.
"How is security handled and where is it handled? If it's in an open area where you don't feel claustrophobic, it makes that process that everyone's got to go through better than if it were in a broom closet," he says.
Perryman gives CVG high marks for its airy and spacious screening area.
Perryman says one reason airports overseas get such good reviews from travelers is they're often subsidized by national governments, whereas most U.S. facilities rely on user fees and are expected to be self-sustaining.
And Perryman says he does see airports improving.
"There is a sense of renaissance, I guess, if you will, coming back into airports," he says. "You see it in the design and the amenities that are being brought back in — those are not nearly as utilitarian as they were during an earlier period that we've gone through."
Still, as long as travelers have to wait in lines to take off their belts and shoes, it's unlikely any airport will seem as glamorous as the "Come Fly With Me" days of the 1950's and '60s.