How SFO Ended Up 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 top major airport, ranking Sacramento first among medium-sized facilities; a group of regional airlines warns of an imminent “collapse” of air services to smaller cities due to pilot shortages; Alaska Airlines Drops a LAX Route; Sun Country will not return to Hawaii, but will add several domestic routes; Frontier adds a Phoenix route and Spirit grows in 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 fees and tightens access policies; and Delta Sky Clubs are beginning to provide accelerated access to the airline’s top customers as the rush continues.

The Wall Street Journal dug into statistics from the nation’s 50 largest airports. It concluded that San Francisco International and Sacramento International ranked #1 in their respective categories. SFO ranked first among the 20 busiest U.S. airports in terms of passenger numbers, and SMF ranked first among 30 medium-sized facilities. The paper said it examined data on 19 factors in its ranking, ranging from airline punctuality to average ticket prices, wait time at the security line, costs at airport concessions, the results of JD Power’s annual passenger satisfaction survey 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 the occasional live music. New non-contact water filling stations will have hot, cold and room temperature settings and may soon dispense free seltzer,” the Journal said. “It’s all low comfort when flights are delayed — a chronic problem given the city’s signature fog — but a topper to a great airport experience when all goes well.” In Sacramento, the article said, the perks for travelers include the airport’s good weather, plentiful runway space, and helpful customer service. “The airport landscapers even help guide travelers.”

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

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

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We have reported several times this year that major airlines are discontinuing service to several smaller cities, often because their regional airline partners didn’t have enough pilots to keep up with their schedules. Now, the Regional Airline Association has issued a stark warning that travelers flying into smaller airports in the US may have to find new ways to get there in the future. That organization, whose regional airlines serve 43% of the nation’s scheduled passenger flights, looked at the big picture and found that “the ongoing, severe pilot shortage has resulted in reduced or lost air service at 76% of U.S. airports.” based on a study of roster data for October 2022 versus the same month in 2019.

“We are on the verge of a large-scale collapse of the small community air service,” said RAA CEO Faye Malarkey Black. “It’s already begun, with 60 U.S. airports losing more than half of their air service since 2019. Every policymaker in government and congress must put politics aside and address this crisis today.”

RAA said its member airlines have retired more than 500 aircraft because they don’t have enough pilots to fly them. all scheduled commercial air services — a number that continues to rise.” It noted that this is just the culmination of a decade-long pilot shortage that the regional airline industry has faced. Since 2009, RAA said, the number of U.S. airports with scheduled service has down 5%, and those who remained on duty have fewer flights to fewer destinations.”These trends are accelerating; between 2019 and 2022, 161 U.S. airports lost more than one in four commercial flights,” RAA said. The organization said the industry and the government should collaborate on efforts such as improved student loans for pilot training, and urged the Federal Aviation Administration to “make data-driven decisions about additional, advanced training pathways allowed under current law.”

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

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

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In California Route News, Alaska Airlines will discontinue its Los Angeles-Salt Lake City service on Nov. 30; on the same date, it is scheduled to introduce daily flights between Paine Field in Everett, Washington, and Anchorage, Alaska. Minnesota low-cost airline 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 Those routes were suspended last April. At the same time, Sun Country plans to begin service on 13 domestic routes this spring, all from 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 receive two flights per week, with start dates from April to June.

Last week, Frontier Airlines introduced a new daily service from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Baltimore-Washington International. Spirit Airlines added San Antonio, Texas, to its route map and started daily flights to Las Vegas and Orlando last week; it will expand its San Antonio operations on March 8, when it will add daily service to Baltimore-Washington and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the Northeast, Delta will realign some commuter routes on January 9, starting 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 the Danube Bridge in Belgrade, Serbia, in December 2015.

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

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In international travel news, West Coast residents will be given a new option to travel to Brazil in 2023. LATAM Airlines Group, a joint venture partner of Delta, plans to introduce flights from Los Angeles to Sao Paulo 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 Newark Liberty and Houston Bush Intercontinental hubs. United had suspended the routes in early 2020. British Airways will add a new US gateway next summer and will start five flights a week from Cincinnati to London Heathrow from June 5.

Are you planning a trip to Serbia? Air Serbia said it will introduce Chicago O’Hare-Belgrade service next year, with two flights per week starting May 17 and increasing to three per week on June 12. It will be the airline’s second US route (New York JFK-Belgrade being the other). Frontier Airlines has begun flying a new international route from Atlanta, with three weekly flights to San Jose, Costa Rica. A new Canadian airline called Canada Jetlines plans to begin its first cross-border service on January 19 with four A320 flights a week from Toronto to Las Vegas; the carrier began flights 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 program membership costs more. The airline said on its website that effective Jan. 1, the cost of membership in the standard Alaska Lounge program will increase from $450 to $500, and the Alaska Lounge+ plan will increase from $600 to $650. standard plan includes access to the airline’s nine airport lounges, while the extended plan includes access to those facilities plus an additional 90 partner airline lounges. Alaska has three lounges in Seattle-Tacoma, two in Portland, and one in San Francisco International, Los Angeles, New York JFK, and Anchorage. The airline is also tightening its Alaska Lounge policy for first class passengers. On first-class tickets booked on November 18 or later, for travel from February 15, complimentary lounge access is no longer available on nonstop or connecting flights shorter than 2,100 miles, although first-class flyers on shorter trips can purchase a day pass with $30 discount for lounge access.

Alaska opened an expanded C Concourse lounge in Seattle-Tacoma this week, adding 3,000 square feet and doubling capacity to 120. On Jan. 7, Alaska said, the D Concourse lounge at Sea-Tac will close for the summer on a project that will give it 30% more seating, a barista station, and new food and beverage outlets. At Portland International, the airline 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 overcrowded Delta Sky Clubs. The popular clubs are so busy, according to the Points Guy, that Delta is building special lanes at the entrance doors for its very best customers, giving them priority over regular Sky Club members during peak hours. The priority access lane is for Delta One customers (i.e. international business class), members of the airline’s invite-only Delta 360 group, SkyMiles Diamond Medallion elites, and first-class flyers.

Delta may be contributing to Sky Club’s crowds with its access policy. “Of all the US airlines, Delta is the most generous with lounge access,” noted the Points Guy. “Anyone with Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express can access the Sky Club, as can the airline’s long-haul passengers, Sky Club members and top flyers who have lounge membership as their annual benefit. Delta does not yet have business class lounges, exacerbating the overcrowding problem for its popular Sky Clubs.” The dedicated boarding lanes are expected primarily outside of Sky Clubs at Delta’s busiest hub airports.

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