Study: TSA lines shorten, but airport construction causes frustration

Part of ATL Next construction near north terminal parking deck at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Thursday, May 25, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Part of ATL Next construction near north terminal parking deck at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Thursday, May 25, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Last year it was long TSA lines frustrating travelers. This year, it’s airport construction.

That’s not just in Atlanta at the world’s busiest airport, but at airports across the country, according to a new J.D. Power survey.

Hartsfield-Jackson is in the middle of a $6 billion expansion and modernization plan, that has created construction zones disrupting passenger flows in parking garages, at pickup areas and on concourses.

J.D. Power’s annual North American Airport Satisfaction study found that airports with massive construction projects underway including Newark Liberty, New York’s LaGuardia, Los Angeles International and Chicago’s O’Hare “are still fighting the headwinds of traveler disruption and access challenges that are handicapping their overall satisfaction scores.”

At Hartsfield-Jackson, one of the biggest frustrations is the August move of Uber and Lyft pickup areas to a remote location that requires a longer walk for passengers. The issue has become such a widespread pain point that candidates for mayor of Atlanta discussed the problem at a forum this week.

Airport officials say the new pickup zones will be in effect for more than a year while massive canopies are constructed over the terminal curbside areas.

The canopy construction has also required those walking from the airport’s parking garages to take detours to get to the terminal, causing some confusion for harried travelers rushing to catch flights. And the airport has had rolling closures of some parts of the curbside.

And on the concourses, ceilings have been ripped open to expose the building's infrastructure while walls are reconstructed to add more windows and bring in more light. In the meantime, some gate areas are under construction.

“The trifecta of a steadily improving economy, record passenger volume and billion-dollar renovation projects unfolding in airports across the country has created a challenging environment for customer satisfaction,” said J.D. Power’s Michael Taylor in a written statement.

But overall, airport satisfaction has reached an all-time high, as airports add technology like more power outlets and introduce perks like therapy dogs to relieve travelers’ stress.

Hartsfield-Jackson scored 747 out of 1,000 points in the J.D. Power study, ranking 13th out of 18 “mega” airports. The top-scoring mega airport was Orlando International, while the lowest was Newark Liberty.

Mega-airports like Hartsfield-Jackson have more problems with navigation and crowds than medium-sized airports like Palm Beach, Jacksonville or Raleigh-Durham, according to study results.

“The issue with Atlanta is you’ve got over 103 million, probably going to top over 105 million passengers this year, and that puts a tremendous stress on the facility,” Taylor said. “That’s 1/3 of the U.S. population going through a few buildings in Georgia every year. It’s amazing that it operates as well as it does.”

Larger airports score better in one key area: variety of restaurants and shops. Travelers who were the most satisfied also spent the most: an average of $43 spent in the terminal at the biggest airports.

The study also showed that over time, more travelers are using ride-share services like Uber and Lyft and fewer are using taxis and limousines. A greater share of passengers is using off-site airport parking lots than in the past.

The study was based on a survey of 34,695 North American travelers from January through August 2017.