With weekly airline passenger volumes now reaching 75% or more of pre-pandemic levels, travelers have officially come back to North American airports. Unfortunately, according to the J.D. Power 2021 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, many of them are arriving to find food, beverage and retail options severely limited as airports struggle with a persistent labor shortage.
While airports have maintained historically strong customer satisfaction scores throughout the pandemic, reaching an overall record high of 802 (on a 1,000-point scale) this year, the combination of steadily rising passenger volumes and shuttered coffee shops and eateries has caused satisfaction scores to decline significantly through the second and third quarters of 2021 (last half of the study).
“Airport customer satisfaction reached all-time highs when passenger volumes were severely suppressed by the pandemic, but as leisure travel rebounded sharply throughout the spring and summer of 2021, we saw an expected downturn in satisfaction,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power. “Ultimately, the data conveys changing expectations among travelers. Early in the pandemic, passengers were satisfied with any shop or restaurant being open, but they now expect full service at the airport.”
Following are some key findings of the 2021 study:
- Record high satisfaction scores belie growing challenges: Overall customer satisfaction with North American airports rises to a record high this year, but much of that improvement was achieved during waves 1 and 2 of the study (July 2020 to January 2021), when passenger volumes were still just a fraction of the historical norm. Over the course of the year, as volumes picked up, satisfaction scores during waves 3 and 4 of the study (January 2021 to July 2021) steadily declined.
- Labor shortage translates to lower scores for food, beverage and retail: Food, beverage and retail services are the keys that turn a good airport experience into a great experience. Award recipient airports Miami International and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International also score highest in the factor for food, beverage and retail in their respective segments. The effects of the labor shortage throughout North America have resulted in several airport dining and retail locations closing, a fact that has disproportionally affected medium-sized airports.
- Major airport construction projects are a swing factor: Major airport construction projects at North American airports—which include traffic cones, redirected traffic and heavy equipment clogging airport roadways and parking areas—greatly affect customer satisfaction scores. Planned airport construction projects in North America, which total in the hundreds of billions of dollars, disrupt travelers and diminish satisfaction, but completion of those construction projects usually leads to significant improvement in satisfaction scores.
Miami International Airport ranks highest in passenger satisfaction among mega airports with a score of 828. John F. Kennedy International Airport (817) ranks second and Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (815) ranks third.
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport ranks highest among large airports with a score of 844. Tampa International Airport (843) ranks second and Raleigh-Durham International Airport (841) ranks third.
Individual airports in the medium airports category were not award eligible this year due to reduced passenger volumes.
The 2021 North America Airport Satisfaction Study measures overall traveler satisfaction with mega, large and medium North American airports by examining six factors (in order of importance): terminal facilities; airport arrival/departure; baggage claim; security check; check-in/baggage check; and food, beverage and retail. Mega airports are those with 33 million or more passengers per year; large airports with 10 to 32.9 million passengers per year; and medium airports with 4.5 to 9.9 million passengers per year.
Now in its 16th year, the study is based on 13,225 completed surveys from U.S. or Canadian residents who traveled through at least one U.S. or Canadian airport and covers both departure and arrival experiences (including connecting airports) during the past 30 days. Travelers evaluated either a departing or arriving airport from their round-trip experience. The study was fielded from August 2020 through July 2021.