Cathedrals, Marvels, and Great Spots: Why America's airports aren't "like a third world country"

There's a rumor afoot that America's airports "are like from a third world country". Surely you didn't think that Wine:Thirty Flight was going to let this Friday go by without pointing out some of what we love about America's airports, right? Listen, not all airports are created equal. Some are better than others. Each excel at different things. There are absolutely stunning airports the world over (including in some developing nations), and also some pretty terrible ones. In general, though, the airports we love fall into three categories: Cathedrals, Marvels, and Great Spots. Book your next layover at one of our favorites to see for yourself.


I'd characterize the modern cathedral airports, like stone houses of worship built (mostly) in times past, by their soaringly grand architecture. They are big, bold, beautiful statements wrought of glass, steel, and light. Like the best architecture through history -- cathedrals, coliseums, capitols -- the best reflect the culture and character of their surroundings. The visual is stunning.

A fine example is Denver International Airport (DEN), whose eccentric main terminal has been built to evoke images of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains when seen outside, and whose interior is filled with light as if shining down from clouds.

Or consider Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), whose impeccably restored historic Terminal A (built in 1941) was joined by the 1997 construction of National Hall connecting Terminals B and C. Beautiful light flows into the riverside National Hall, designed by César Pelli (of Petronas Towers fame).

Even recently expanded smaller airports are in the game, though admittedly to less grand a scale. The airports in Raleigh, NC (RDU) and Jacksonville, FL (JAX) come to mind thanks to their big bright open spaces and their use of light and arches as an architectural style.


If the cathedrals appeal to the visual, then the marvels appeal to the sheer vastness of what some of these airports achieve. Many a traveler has gotten stuck for a little while at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL), but consider the sophistication required to move over 278,000 people through planes every day. Put another way, at 101.5 million passengers per year, ATL is moving about 13% people than the world's second largest airport, China's Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK).

At nearly 75 million passengers per year -- good enough for seventh place on the list of world's largest -- Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is impressive as the only airport to host a hub for all three of the big historic U.S. Airlines (and one for Virgin America, too).

You'll find, in fact, that American airports accounted for four of the top ten busiest airports in terms of passenger traffic in 2015 (Chicago O'Hare International and Dallas - Fort Worth International join ATL and LAX at ranking number five and ten respectively). You need to count Hong Kong as a part of China to even get to another country that even has two in the top ten. Take the world's top twenty (New York's John F. Kennedy International at number 15 and Denver at number 19) more than a quarter of the world's twenty busiest are American. America's top ten busiest add San Francisco, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Miami to the list. Together they fly well in excess of half a billion people a year. No other country comes close to that kind of volume.

Great Spots

Cathedrals are wonderful to gawk at, and marvels will blow your mind, but for every day travelers, there are the great spots. These are the sometimes simple pleasures that help make air travel enjoyable. I've found a few for you to try.

Airports and wine bars increasingly go together. Vino Volo has been a leader here, but I've had great experiences at the wine bar in the central terminal at Charlotte Douglas International (CLT), and I happen to think that the jetBlue Terminal 5 at JFK offers some of the best airport wine and dining you'll find.

The growing number of American Express Centurion lounges offer great meals, thoughtful drinks, and modern yet comfortable places to relax. I recently found one I loved at Dallas - Fort Worth (DFW).

Finally, a plug for one of my favorites, I'll never fall out of love with the water taxi that takes you to and from Boston Logan International Airport (BOS). Maybe it's that I grew up on boats, but there's something really splendid about taking in city sights and fresh sea air en route to your final destination after a long flight.