Buffalo-Niagara International Airport

Top airports share their secrets to success

What ‘secret weapons’ do airports use to make passengers happy? For my most recent “At the Airport” column on USA TODAY, I asked some of the ‘winners’ in the most recent JD Power suvey to share what they think makes their airports stand out against others.

Airports around the country are dealing wiht record high passenger volumes and a wave of major terminal construction projects. Yet, U.S. airports are doing a bang-up job of pleasing passengers.

That’s the major take-away from the 2018 North America Airport Satisfaction Study recently released by J.D. Power, which ranks everything from airlines and airports to electronics and cars.

The study says travelers’ overall satisfaction with airports is at a record high, based on factors such as terminal facilities; airport accessibility; security check; baggage claim; check-in/baggage check; and food, beverage and retail.

Of course, some airports rank higher in the study than others. And when we quizzed ‘winners’ about the secrets to their success, “a commitment to customer service” emerged as a universal theme. But so too did did a keen, good-hearted sense of competition.

The ‘mega’ airports


Among ‘mega’ airports – those serving more than 32.5 million annual passengers – Orlando International Airport (the 2017 category winner) and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas tied for first place.

Orlando International (MCO), Florida’s busiest airport, credits its return win to “a seamless arrival and departure experience that exceeds the needs of the traveler and instills a memorable imprint of the culture and environment of the region.”

The airport is meeting milestones in its $4.27 billion Capital Improvement Plan and has completed a variety of ‘passenger-pleasing’ projects ranging from improved Wi-Fi and baggage systems to a people mover system that transports passengers over waterways and landscape that evoke the Florida sense of place.

When McCarran International Airport (LAS) landed in the number 3 slot in J.D. Power’s ‘mega’ category last year, Rosemary Vassiliadis, Director of Aviation for Clark County, Nevada,  gathered her team together to strategize how to move up to first place.

“It’s personal for us,” said Vassiliadis, “Las Vegas is a destination city and our airport offers the first and last look for almost 50% of the people who visit. We want to let them know how much their visit means to us.”

To gain its first-place tie this year, LAS teams focused on upgrading terminal spaces, smoothing out checkpoint experiences and perfecting the “You’re in Vegas” vibe that includes slot machines, a neon “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, and a curated “Voices of Vegas” taped music program highlighting iconic Vegas acts and songs that name check the city.

At Detroit Metropolitan Airport (ranked third in this category this year) logo welcome mats have replaced industrial black runners. DTW officials also credit high passenger satisfaction ratings to amenities such as new nursing rooms, water bottle refill stations and light fixtures that can be programmed with seasonal and sport-team colors.

At Denver International Airport, which placed fourth in the ‘mega’ category this year, the secret to success is always looking for ways to “surprise and delight passengers,” said airport spokeswoman Emily Williams.

DEN offers everything from a Canine Airport Therapy Squad (that includes a cat) to airport events in an outdoor plaza that have featured a beer garden and an ice-skating rink.

And during its current terminal renovation project, DEN is having success delighting passengers with a series of “Pardon our dust” messages that embrace the conspiracy theories and rumors of alien inhabitants that date back to 1995, when the airport opened.

The best ‘large’ airports

Among ‘large’ airports serving 10 million to 32.4 million passengers California’s John Wayne Airport, in Orange County, ranked highest this year; Dallas Love Field ranked second and Oregon’s Portland International Airport ranked third.

John Wayne Airport 2006

With a departure curfew, passenger and flights caps and just 505 acres, “We’re a postage stamp of an airport, but passengers like our airport’s convenience.” said Deanne Thompson, spokeswoman for John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is located about an hour from LAX.

At SNA, passengers also appreciate ‘extras’ such as water bottle refill stations, pet relief areas, the vibrant art program and the nursing mothers lounge with adjustable lighting, said Thompson, “All amenities that make travel easy.”

Dallas Love Field Airport, which must contend with a gate cap, credits its customer satisfaction success to “personal touch and high-quality customer service.”

The airport offers a live weekday lunchtime music performance program, permanent and changing art exhibitions, a public piano, a children’s play area and information booths that are staffed from 5 a.m. until the last flight.

And at Oregon’s Portland International Airport, passengers enjoy the wide selection of local and regional shops and restaurants, true street pricing and a suite of amenities that includes a free movie theater, said PDX spokeswoman Kama Simonds.

“The secret sauce? The folks who work at PDX, who have an awesome sense of pride in the work they do and the travelers they interact with,” said Simonds, “And as we all know from when we’re travelers, that makes the whole experience that much better.”

The best ‘Medium’ airports

Among medium sized airports – those serving between 3 million and 9.9 million passengers – this year Buffalo Niagara International Airport ranks the highest, followed by Indianapolis International Airport and Fort Myers/Southwest Florida International.


In addition to focusing on customer service, “We also do things that go above and beyond,” said Kimberley Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The airport has a branch of the Anchor Bar where Buffalo chicken wings were invented and the second largest ‘Paws of Love’ therapy dog program in the country. Thanks in large part to BUF’s award winning snow removal team, the airport never closes.

Among its ‘secret weapons,’ Indianapolis International Airport cites its bright, wide-open spaces and amenities such as human-powered charging kiosks and an extensive permanent and rotating art exhibition program. Events at the airport often mirror what’s happening in town: i.e. during Indianapolis 500 season, IND hosts a panel with drivers sharing stories of their racing experiences.


And a Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, “Our secret to success is the sense of place at our facilities,” said RSW spokeswoman Victoria Moreland, “In the terminal you can look out huge windows at the busy ramp and runway areas while sitting at a table under a palm tree.”

Do you agree with these rankings? And have you noticed these ‘secret weapons’ employed?

At the airport: snow happens.

In February 2010, snowstorms so inundated Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport that outside help was needed to cart all the snow away.

Luckily the snow-moving experts at Liberty Mountain Resort and Conference Center were willing to come over and help out with their Bully 600 ski slope and trail grooming vehicle.

BWI AIRPORT snow removal

A creative solution to an icy problem and, as I found out for this column in USATODAY.com – Winter survival strategies from [some of ] the USA’s snowiest airports – not unlike the snow-situations airports around the country must face each winter.

Pittsburgh Airport clearing snow

Clearing snow at Pittsburgh International Airport

Like the plowed snow at many airports, registrations for the 45th annual International Aviation Snow Symposium are beginning to pile up.

Held each April, most often in snowstorm-prone Buffalo, the symposium bestows awards on airports that excel in battling the white stuff and offers airport staff a chance to chill out and swap war stories about what went right or wrong, weather-wise, during the previous winter.

So far this season, storms have triggered the cancellation of thousands of flights and forced the temporary closing of many airports. That means there’ll be plenty to talk about at this year’s conference, as attendees try to take in tactics to make you less likely to get stuck at an airport next winter.

But when it comes to operations in unforgiving winter weather, not all airports are created equal.

Art. Not science.

“It’s not a science. There’s no book out there called Airport Snow Removal for Dummies,” says Paul Hoback, maintenance director for the Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County airports. “It’s more of an art.”

“Experience helps,” adds Hoback. “Our people have to know how to treat different types of precipitation and how to react to wind speed and wind direction so they don’t push the snow off the runway and have it blow right back on. They also have to understand what different types of ice and snow might do when they hit the ground.”

That knowledge, good planning and communication and the right equipment were all in place at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) last February 5th when a storm dumped more than 20 inches of snow at the airport.

“The storm was too much for many airports in the Northeast,” says Hoback, “And even we ended up closing for 17 hours. Our crews took that as a defeat but fought to get the airfield back open so that one or two airplanes with transplant organs aboard could land.”

For its efforts during that storm, Pittsburgh airport won one of a coveted Balchen/Post Awards at last year’s International Aviation Snow Symposium. Dulles International Airport, Chicago O’Hare and the Greater Rochester International Airport took home first-place awards as well.

Equipment helps

Boston Logan Vammas snow machines

Boston Logan International Airports Vammas machines in action

At Boston Logan International Airport, which won a Balchen/Post Award in 2009, airport spokesperson Richard Walsh says, “We consider snow a four letter word. We go out there and battle storms to the end.”

Logan was closed for a just a few hours last Wednesday during a storm that dumped heavy snow on parts of New England. In Logan’s corner during that storm: a snow plan, determination and eleven, 68-foot long Vammas snow machines, each a giant plow, sweeper and blower rolled-into-one. When working in unison, airport officials boast that the Vammas fleet can clear a 10,000 foot runway in less than 15 minutes.

Buffalo Niagara International Airport snow plow

Snow plow shoot plumes of snow at Buffalo Niagara International Airport

Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, which hosts the annual aviation snow symposium, has won the Balchen/Post award multiple times. And although it gets an average of more than 8 feet of snow a year, it’s been more than three years since BUF has had to close due to snow.

“At the first snowflake we’ll send out a whole fleet of broom trucks to immediately begin brushing the pavement,” says airfield superintendent Tom Dames. “When snow piles up, we also have monster truck snow blowers that churn up snow and spit it out into the fields away from the runway. It looks a lot like fireboats shooting out plumes of water; except these are huge plumes of snow.”

Do-over in Denver

A few years back, Denver International Airport learned some important snow lessons the hard way.

Denver Airport clearing snow

Denver Airport has a new approach to snow removal

In 2006, just days before Christmas, Denver got hit with a blizzard that dumped 22 inches of snow in a 24-hour period. “The airport was closed for 22 hours,” says Mark Nagel, Denver Airport’s Acting Deputy Manager of Aviation. “It took us that long to clean up and get a couple of runways and our ramps clear.”

3,000 passengers spent their Christmas stranded at Denver airport that year. Nagel says “No one was too thrilled. We did kind of receive a black eye for that because it took us so long to recover.”

The problem was too big to sweep under a pile of snow. Instead, a consultant was hired; a study was conducted and DIA learned that, when it came to snow, the airport was inefficient, unorganized, understaffed and armed with not enough equipment.

The fixes included retraining, reorganizing and reassessing snow removal priorities. And now, like other airports, DIA has a snow committee that meets year-round with airlines, the FAA and other airport stakeholders to make sure the snow control plan is realistic and up-to-date.

Denver International Airport has also invested millions of dollars in new equipment and switched from single-function to more modern multi-function machinery that can plow and sweep at the same time. “So instead of taking 45-minutes to an hour to clear a runway, we can now do it in less than 15 minutes” says Ron Morin, Denver Airport’s Director of Aviation Field Maintenance.

And instead of having a single snow team, the Denver airport now has eight; each with a dedicated function. Team members were offered the chance to name their machines, but they asked instead to name their teams. Now, whenever it snows, you’ll see the Snow Cats, the Marauders, the Taxi Way Tuxedoes, the Blizzard Busters, the Deice Men Cometh, the Ramp Rats and the Snow Dawgs taking care of business.

Advice from Anchorage Airport and Mother Nature

Anchorage Airport

Anchorage Airport has never closed due to snow

Anchorage International Airport has won the Balchen/Post award four times and is always ready for snow. “Our snow season lasts from October through mid-April,” says Airfield Maintenance manager Dan Frisby. “At other airports it will snow and then melt. Here, the snow can stick around all year long.”

Frisby and assistant manager Zaramie Lindseth know the airport has been closed due to volcanic ash, a windstorm, the 1964 earthquake and, like other U.S. airports, for a few days after 9/11. But they can find no records that show the airport has ever been closed due to ice or snow.

In addition to having the right equipment, Frisby says it’s important that airports maintain their equipment and not skimp on the cost of crews and supplies. “Some airports try and hold back on the chemicals. And it just bites you. You’ve got to go into attack mode when a storm starts and use the chemicals as they were designed.”

No matter how well an airport prepares, though, sometimes snow happens and there’s really nothing anyone can do.

“When Denver International Airport opened, it was touted as the all-weather airport,” says DIA’s Mark Nagel. “They said ‘We’ll never close.’ But we’ve learned the hard way that you have to respect Mother Nature and balance safety with the goal of staying open.”

All photos courtesy of the featured airports. Thank-you.

Do you know an airport that does really well in the snow?  Let us know!