The Definitive Data-Driven Airport Ranking List

Google this: “best airports in the US 2018”

Do you see that? 660 million results. There are gigabytes upon gigabytes of articles across the internet about the pros and cons of various US airports. However, there’s rarely consensus between the many listicles, slideshows and travel blogs. So, Lexalytics mined social data from ten of the busiest airports in America. The goal? Rate these airports based on actual customer experience signal. The result: a ranked list driven by data science, not editorializations and PR.

After this project concluded, Lexalytics partnered with Gensler’s Los Angeles Aviation and Transportation Studio, the industry leader in global airport architecture. Together, the teams are completing a firm-wide research project that, in the words of Gensler, aims at “leveraging sentiment analysis to inform the planning and design of airports.”

Architects Kate O’Connor, Justin Wortman and Andy Huang from Gensler have been using Lexalytics’ Semantria Storage & Visualization (Semantria SV) to mine social media data about dozens of America’s airports, with the aim being to find the signal in the noise of customer feedback. Through Semantria’s sentiment analysis technology, the team is generating deep, data-driven insights into what travelers and staff value in their airport experience. It bears mentioning that the information and views presented in this article are Lexalytics’ alone. This list does not in any way represent the opinions of Gensler or its affiliates.


This simplified example serves to illustrate the basic concepts behind rules-based sentiment analysis. In other words, -1 is very negative and +1 is very positive.

We’ve taken 30,748 Facebook comments from ten of America’s busiest airports and ran them through our Semantria Storage & Visualization platform. A bit of perspective: 30,748 Facebook comments equates to 869,973 words, enough to fill 2,768 pages. That’s more than double the size of War and Peace!

Using natural language processing, we algorithmically sorted the airports based on real customer feedback. In other words, the ranking is based on an airport’s average customer sentiment, rather than opinion or star rating. Want to know more about the factors that influenced each airport’s ranking? Click on each airport’s name to review our deep dive into customer sentiment.

1. San Francisco International Airport

Sentiment Weight: +0.28

If you read our earlier SFO article, it should come as no surprise that San Francisco International Airport tops the list for customer satisfaction. The airport began using social listening in 2017, making improvements aligned with customer demand. Judi Mosqueda, the Director of Project Management for SFO, oversaw the investment of $7.3 million towards improving the airport’s wayfinding experience. This project addresses a major customer concern. The data shows how the social mentions of wayfinding at SFO jumps from very negative to very positive in a year’s time. It’s clear that customers can be your best business adviser if you listen properly – using the right tools.

Sentiment Weight +0.96

I fly out of SFO for work and fun roughly 30 times per year. Yes there are weather delays, but this airport is truly a pleasure to use! The terminals are all being updated or have recently been updated, their [sic] are improvements in the weather delays, and there are plenty of flight options to choose from. The food has been getting better as the terminal renovations finish, which makes the weather delays more tolerable… The staff is great at serving the customers that pack in as delays stack up. The lounges are where I’ve noticed the biggest changes. American’s Terminal 2 Admirals Club is immaculate! If you have the pleasure of flying through SFO I highly recommend it!

Sentiment Weight -0.51

“Flights frequently get delayed due to ‘weather.’ You can play the weather card here and there, but when half your flights throughout the year are delayed due to ‘weather,’ that’s called a ‘scheduling’ problem.”

2. Las Vegas McCarran International

Sentiment Weight: +0.24

Tomás Del Coro from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

What happens in Vegas can also skew the feelings of travelers who make their way through Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. Negatively scored reviews often criticize aspects of the city well beyond the control of airport stakeholders. Using a properly tuned social listening tool like Semantria SV, we see that often the negative customer sentiment is aimed at the City of Sin itself. We also learn that many travelers seem to enjoy the idea of having slot machines in the airport, while others found them an unpleasant reminder of past decisions. When it comes to the airport services themselves, like complimentary wifi on the tarmac, customer reviews score very positively. Overall, travelers find themselves engaged, on time, and happy while at LAS.

Sentiment Weight +2.83

Flew Virgin America for the first time. Classic funk hit ‘Flashlight’ was blasting through the speakers at ticketing! Gotta give them at least four stars for that alone! Also, won at gambling in the terminal. Even better? You get to enjoy super-fast FREE wifi!

Sentiment Weight -0.59

I liked it but they need to get rid of the slots. After a week n [sic] Vegas I didn’t want to see another slot. I was so ready to go home. Four days is plenty n [sic] that town.

3. Seattle-Tacoma International

Sentiment Weight: +0.19

Bernstea, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia CommonsThe deep-dive into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport details how the customer experience breaks all departmental silos. Dirty bathrooms, for example, exacerbate complaints about costly food. However, despite some small challenges, Sea-Tac’s positive reviews account for nearly 40% of its data set — not bad. Topics ranging from the attitude and helpfulness of staff to the quality of the (expensive) food all score positively. By using smart NLP solutions to its advantage, Sea-Tac could quite easily make the changes needed to find its way to the top of this list.

Sentiment Weight +0.68

“A welcome stop in a long trip the food is good a little pricey but I guess that’s to be expected, train ride was nice and quick and the staff was friendly!!!”

Sentiment Weight -0.62

“Why are all airport’s food so darn expensive? $12 for water and crackers??? Additionally the terminals aren’t equal in terms of food options. Previously I’ve never had an issue with bathrooms but I gotta say this experience was DISGUSTING. Hair everywhere. Gag me. But otherwise it’s great, the staff is very friendly and very helpful!”

4. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International

Sentiment Weight: +0.15

Omoo at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia CommonsAs the busiest airport in the world, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport is bound to face some challenges. Through the power of NLP and social listening, it becomes clear that its biggest problem is with the wayfinding experience, despite recent and costly renovations. The data also shows that the saving grace for Atlanta is the staff, who are reviewed as courteous and helpful. Still, no amount of good cheer and manners can make up for the navigation nightmare of trying to find the proper gate.

Sentiment Weight +1.08

“I had to navigate this huge airport with two small children, luggage, and a carseat [sic]. I can honestly say any attendant who saw me was more than helpful. Directing me to TSA, picking us up from the park and ride, and just being considerate. A large place but the staff is more than capable.”

Sentiment Weight -0.24

Nice airport, good restaurants… only complaint — the signage could use a little bit of work. I stepped off the train to [sic] soon because of the confusing signage between terminal T and the baggage claim. (I’ve actually done this twice on two different trips :-D)

5. Denver International

Sentiment Weight: +0.15

By Original work: Luis JimenezDepiction: Mike Sinko -, CC BY-SA 2.0, to a colorful connection with conspiracy theorists, Denver’s reviews speak of anti-gravity rooms, the Illuminati, and “Blucifer” — the giant bucking bronco sculpture at the entrance to the airport. As detailed in the linked write-up, social listening shows many of these complaints represent a potential path for customer engagement. When you tune the results, the data show that staff get twice as many positive comments as negative ones. They also reveal that while customers don’t mind the Illuminati so much, they could go for some more hooks on bathroom stalls and an improved baggage claim experience.

Sentiment Weight +1.35

“It is actually an underground Illuminati headquarters. The enormous, hideous blue horse statue with glowing red eyes next to the entrance road killed it’s [sic] sculptor before he finished it. The runway layout looks like a swastika when seen from space. There is a mural in one terminal that shows a child in a coffin. There are gargoyles on the inside of the building… Also, the people that work here are extremely nice and helpful!”

Sentiment Weight -1.24

“Fantastic airport ruined by terrible bag delays which are common. Waited more than 30 minutes for my bags. Unacceptable.”

6. Dallas/Fort Worth International

Sentiment Weight: +0.14DatraxMada, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2017, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport ranked as both the best and worst airport (on different lists, of course). That it lands here on our list makes perfect sense as customer reviews score mostly neutral. Still, our sentiment analysis reveals that when travelers do get passionate about DFW, it’s usually about cleanliness. Interestingly, a PR director working for a DFW affiliated agency reached out to contest our findings; head over to the deep-dive article to see the exchange — and see the differences between AI and PR. A trove of positive comments highlight DFW’s inter-terminal tram system, Skylink. When properly maintained, Skylink is a unanimous crowd pleaser.

Sentiment Weight +0.44

“Best airport for kids! Kids play areas and the Skylink! We purposefully will always layover at DFW because it’s always a great experience.”

Sentiment Weight -0.97

“One of the grossest airports I’ve been to. Carpet in the waiting areas is absolutely filthy, as are the seats in the sky trams as well. Not sure if they even vacuum???”

7. Chicago O’Hare International

Sentiment Weight: +0.08

Chicago’s position on this list is unique from the others, as the sentiment weight is skewed. The subject of a viral national news story, ORD received a flurry of one-star reviews in a short period of time. Using Lexalytics’ web dashboard, Semantria Storage & Visualization, we see occurrences of 1-star Facebook ratings jump from 11% to 58% within days of the incident. The number of 5-star ratings dropped by more than half overnight. There is no question the right social listening tool might have made all the difference to Chicago’s standing during that crucial time, a subject we explore in the article.

Sentiment Weight +0.98

“Flight on time. Security line reasonable. Was not beaten and dragged off the flight I paid for by agents of an unchecked police state. So all in all a better than average experience.”

Sentiment Weight -1.61

“I’m paying for wifi and I’m using my last amount of battery to write this glowing review of O’Hare, that’s how much I’m disappointed with this airport. As a disclaimer my flight was delayed due to not being able to clear snow from the runways. I won’t fault am airline/airport for weather, but I will fault you for not being able to handle minor precipitation. Not prepared for snow of any kind in December! Concourses are dated. Waiting areas have no outlets… and chairs look like they’re straight out of the 1970’s. Avoid O’Hare at all costs… Also, I figured out that all these large plastic bins scattered around on the floor of the airport are for the crappy leaky roof. Real great look, Chicago.”

8. Los Angeles International

Sentiment Weight: +0.06

If first impressions last forever, then Los Angeles International Airport is in trouble. Thanks to LA’s famous traffic, the airport faces challenges before customers and staff even arrive at the facility. While some of the responsibility lies with the City of Angels itself, the airport could use — and fortunately is using — AI powered natural language processing to effect landside improvements. The airport recently began deploying text analytics to inform infrastructure changes. Now, myriad improvements are in the works, ranging from a metro link to a tram connecting arrivals to rental car companies. If they follow through, LAX might rank much higher on future lists.

Sentiment Weight +2.55

I was pleasantly surprised by how chic the new airport remodel was! Nice little shops, a MAC counter, trendy eateries, a Tumi, and a Frederic M, plus plenty of places to charge my phone and tablet, and although I don’t drink, lots of bars for those that do!”

Sentiment Weight -0.17′

Food options are great….if you can get there threw [sic] the traffic. Once in the vicinity it is so bottle necked its [sic] a mess. The rental car return is so far away dont [sic] even bother. You teally [sic] have to leave where you are at (if youre [sic] within a 35 miles radius, longer if you are farther) at least 4-5 hours before your plane leaves, just to get to LAX. Onc e [sic] within your terminal its [sic] nice.

9. New York John F. Kennedy International 

Sentiment Weight: +0.01

Like Las Vegas McCarran, John F. Kennedy International Airport is as much a cultural landmark as a business. Nonetheless, customers come through by the millions and have many of the complaints you might expect of a giant transit hub. Last year, the New York state government earmarked $7 billion for renovations. They run the risk of throwing good money after bad if they fail to tap into the strategic knowledge afforded by text analytics and social listening. When it comes to positive customer sentiment for JFK, there isn’t much consensus. The airport faces many challenges ahead if it wishes to win customers from its two nearest competitors, LGA and EWR.

Sentiment Weight +1.16

My favorite of the major NYC airports (JFK, LGA, EWR). Staff is somewhat friendlier and it’s an all around better environment.

Sentiment Weight -0.49

Beyond frustrated with the lack of breastfeeding/pumping areas anywhere! No, I don’t want to pump at an airport terminal gate or in a booth at one of the terminal restaurants, but thanks for the offer. JFK is one of the busiest airports so not a lot of low traffic areas. Why don’t airports put outlets in the family bathrooms? It is hard enough having to travel with the extra supplies as is. Ugh… Also, no free wifi?”

10. Charlotte Douglas International 

Sentiment Weight: -0.01

People really, really don’t enjoy Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The consensus narrative exposed by the analysis reveals a systemic attitude problem among staff. Data extracted from the reviews reflect personnel who don’t appear to care about customer experience. Complaints extend to a variety of other areas as well, from ADA compliance to poor signage and wayfinding design, and the recently defunct bathroom attendant program. Charlotte does stand tall with its communal spaces — central to which is a sunlit atrium appointed with trees and snow-white rocking chairs. If Charlotte begins listening to its customers, it will be better empowered to solve their core challenges. In turn, bonuses like rocking chairs will be seen more as a cherry on top, and less as a manifestation of tone-deaf customer support.

Sentiment Weight +0.30

As a connecting airport, it has a way to go to compete with Atlanta in terms of efficiency, services, scope… but I *have* had some respectable longer layovers here that were pleasant enough in a big white rocker with someone playing piano in the terminal gently in the evening. As an embarkation airport, it still kinda sucks but is getting better.

Sentiment Weight -1.76

Horrible!!!! I am Stage 4 Triple Negative Breast Cancer with METS to many bones. I am wheelchair bound as walking is very difficult. One of the people was to take me to terminal 15 and instead dumped me at terminal 8 telling me the terminal has been changed. The terminal was never changed and I was simply deserted. People began asking me if I needed help, these were passengers not employees. Never again will I fly through Charlotte.

Thank you for flying with us

And so concludes our definitive, data-driven guide to ten of America’s busiest airports. During the ensuing data analysis, we’ve discovered insights about airport architecture and uncovered customer experience best practices; we even learned how to use AI to handle a viral press crisis. It’s clear that when visiting an airport, customers care most about staff attitude, cleanliness, and wayfinding (in that order).

Technology like social media listening is already disrupting the airport industry – and airports making use of it are well-placed to strategically meet customer needs and enjoy ongoing success. In future, social media listening’s role in the future of airport success will be as unquestioned as runway maintenance and duty-free retail. As the National Research Council’s Airport Cooperative Research Program says, “Airports do not have a choice about whether to be involved in social media; the question is how well they do it.”