All photos courtesy of the respective airports unless otherwise noted.
Just call them the best of the best.
As TravelPulse set out to find the 100 best U.S. airports – and, since there’s a yin to every yang, the worst airports as well – we knew there would be some surprises along the way, however big or small they might be.
Our top 10 certainly reflects that.
Our No. 1 was something of a surprise because its sheer size is often a detriment to some airports.
Our No. 2 was also a bit of a stunner.
As was No. 5 and No. 10.
Determine for yourself, as we present the top 10 airports in the TravelPulse survey.
No. 1: ATLANTA HARTSFIELD-JACKSON INTERNATIONAL
It is the world’s busiest airport, with more than 100 million passengers passing through its gates last year. You would think with that amount of volume, in a city notorious for its traffic, that Atlanta wouldn’t be near the top of any survey. But here it is, sitting above all else.
In fact, in the seven categories TravelPulse used as its methodology to determine the best airports, Hartsfield-Jackson finished no worse than 11th in any one of them, and led three of them.
“Atlanta is pretty exceptional in general considering that it's probably the busiest airport in the world and handles the traffic relatively comfortably,” said one respondent to the survey.
Added another: “Atlanta is a huge airport, but it has a great variety of stores and restaurants, plenty to keep you busy during layovers.”
Oh, it has its detractors. What airport doesn’t? “Atlanta is an absolute nightmare! It is terrible trying to get from one end of the airport to the other! I try to avoid it at all costs!” wrote one survey-taker. That person would be in the minority, of course, because Atlanta, according to TravelPulse, is the best airport in the U.S.
No. 2: ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL
If you think MCO is just a means to an end to get you from your house to the Mouse, think again.
Orlando International also finished in the top 11 of every single category used in our survey, including the top spot in ease of access -- myriad ways to get to the airport, and its people-moving trams once inside are a big hit -- top five in modernity, top five in terminal comfort, top 10 in amenities, top 10 for business friendliness, top 10 for volume and No. 1 for family friendliness.
For more on how Orlando approaches the idea of running its airport and how airport officials set out to be a top-tier contender, please see our separate story.
No. 3: DENVER INTERNATIONAL
It took a lot to get here, but Denver International is reaping the rewards of its new facility that replaced the old Stapleton Airport. Yes it was 16 months overdue. Yes, the cost ballooned from $1.7 billion to $4.8 billion when it finally opened in 1995.
But … wow. In the seven categories, Denver was third, first, second, second, 25th, 11th and 13th, including the top spot in modernity.
“Denver really stands out in the modern category for me,” said one respondent. “Subtle things like art work, moving walkways in the middle of terminals, and plenty of outlets for charging electronic devices make a difference.” Added another: “Denver is a better airport since everything is clearly marked and easy to navigate.”
Oh, and if you’re into conspiracy theories – like why some people think there are underground bunkers beneath the airports, or why some say the six runways look like a swastika from an aerial view – this airport is for you.
4) MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL INTERNATIONAL
Once a Northwest hub and now a Delta Air Lines stronghold, MSP finished in the top 10 in six of our seven categories – everything except the amount of passengers who pass through annually. Minneapolis fared especially well with amenities.
“The food options are the best in MSP,” said one person.
“DTW, DEN and MSP are great airport for food and other amenities like a quick massage,” added another.
It also rated highly for its ease of access.
“ATL and MSP have the most organized walkways, trams and 'people movers,’” said one respondent. Minneapolis also came in as the best U.S. airport in the annual Travel+Leisure rankings.
T+L also noted its food options – calling MSP a “mini-mall,” which wouldn’t be far off given its proximity to the Mall of America – and also noting its speed of check-in lines and security.
No. 5: CHARLOTTE-DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL
One of our first surprises of the survey. An American Airlines hub, Charlotte had top 10 finishes in four of our seven categories, including second in ease of access and third in amenities. This is such an interesting airport because of its location but also because of the myriad ways of getting there, which certainly contribute to its high regard for ease of access.
Yes, of course there are highways but there is one way to go that literally takes you through a slew of Charlotte neighborhoods, one of which includes Billy Graham's home, until the final turn –which on the becomes a long straightaway right into the airport.
So many people love this airport that one respondent wrote, simply, “Charlotte. Period.”
Once inside, it’s more of the same.
“Loved Manchester (N.H.) and Charlotte. So many of these airports feel so cookie cutter. These two actually try to be comfortable instead of just pretty,” wrote one survey-taker.
Said another: “Most often I'm going through the airports on a layover, and barely have time to get from one flight to the next. However, I truly did enjoy Charlotte and the ease of getting around. It provided me plenty of time to stop in some of the fantastic shops they have to offer.”
No. 6: SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL
One of the first airports to incorporate aesthetics into its design work, SFO is one of the most beautiful airports in the country. And it’s not just a runway model, either, since it combines that beauty with function and form. SFO finished in the top 10 in three of TravelPulse’s seven categories used in the survey, including fourth in amenities.
It also fared well in modernity.
“I would say the only airport that really impresses me with how modern it is is SFO because the outlets are easily accessible, the Wifi is free and they even have a yoga room,” said one respondent.
No. 7: SEATTLE-TACOMA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Sea-Tac, as it is known, is quietly sitting back and enjoying (and reaping the benefits of) a nice little battle for airport supremacy between two carriers that call it their hub – Delta and Alaska airlines. But they’re not resting on their laurels because officials have made this one of the top airports in the country. Seattle finished in the top 10 in three categories – ease of access, amenities and family friendliness.
“Seattle is large and has a lot of business amenities, particularly for tech gear and accessories,” commented one respondent.
Said another: “Seattle has an extremely family-friendly airport, (but) they have only improved in this over the past two decades. Believe me, I know. I have spent many hours at Sea-Tac over the past 20 years traveling pregnant and with my three kids, who are now 15, 17 and 19.”
And while Sea-Tac isn’t among the top 10 in passenger volume, one comment summarized many in saying, “Seattle is orderly and easy to get around. Seattle is a really large airport and the travel hub for the Pacific Northwest and the northwestern U.S., so you can get anywhere in the world pretty much any time you want to on any route you need.”
No. 8: TAMPA INTERNATIONAL
The second of six Florida airports on the list, Tampa finished fourth in ease of access and seventh in terminal comfort.
“Tampa was an ease to travel through especially to ground transportation,” said one of our survey respondents.
Earlier this year, Tampa was rated as the best large commercial airport in the country by Phoenix Marketing, which collected opinions from more than 170,000 airport users between November of 2015 and February of this year – even as Tampa undergoes a $953 million renovation.
TIA ranked highly in the most recent survey of airlines by ThePointsGuy.com, coming in as the nation’s 11th best airport and scoring high on speed of security lines. But it was noted that the airport lacks reliable public transit.
No. 9: DETROIT METROPOLITAN
After a gorgeous makeover and renovation, DTW is one of the best airports in the country. It placed highly in all categories, topping the terminal comfort division and coming in second behind Denver in modernity. Who would have thought this 20 years ago when passengers talked about making the drive to Grand Rapids or Flint just to avoid Detroit?
Just read the comments to our survey.
“I love the DTW! It's extremely easy to the train if needed. And, there are plenty of moving sidewalks and lots of room to navigate.”
“I truly love DTW and DEN.”
“Nothing is comfortable and it’s very frustrating that it’s how it is now, but Detroit actually has some of the best spots.”
“Loved Detroit. Easy to get to, lots of nonstop, great lounges. Parking attached to the terminal.”
“Detroit is one of the cleanest, most modern US airports.”
“Transiting in Detroit is great. Well organized and efficient.”
No. 10: BALTIMORE-WASHINGTON INTERNATIONAL
Another slight surprise landing in the top 10. BWI finished in the top 10 in only one of our categories but it was consistent enough across the board to earn an overall top 10 spot in the final rankings.
“Much more impressed with Baltimore-Washington than I thought I’d be. Feels borderline homey in spots.”
Volume might be larger elsewhere, but that didn’t bother some of our respondents.
“Reagan offers more direct flights but it's always cheaper to fly out of Baltimore,” said one.
Ease of access was a key component as well.
“BWI and RSW are so easy to access,” said one. Added another of our survey-takers: “Dropoff and pickup at BWI are always a breeze for me.”