the best and the worst: airports for amputees (part 1)


09.10.13 the best and the worst ...

Part of the never-ending walk from gate to ground transportation at the Nation’s 3rd-Worst Airport for Amputees.

While I haven’t had the luxury of visiting every airport in the United States, sometimes it feels like I have. I therefore deem myself qualified to offer a two-part series on the best and worst U.S. airports for amputees.

As you will see, key factors include navigability and a nice space to inhabit when not walking. Caveat: I don’t make use of wheelchairs or other assistance of any kind in airports. This makes “distance walked” a critical factor for me when creating these rankings. If you use a wheelchair or other airport assistance to navigate airports, you may disagree with these results.

With that in mind, let’s kick off the review with the bottom-feeders.

the worst

3. Hartsfield-Jackson Int’l Airport (Atlanta)

God help you if the train shuttling misbegotten souls trapped in the purgatory between your gate and the main terminal breaks down. (And sometimes, it does.)

Earlier this year, just for the thrill of it, I eschewed the airtran. I figured it would be an interesting experiment trying to walk the distance the train covers, in much the same way that Les Stroud believes surviving alone in the wilderness for a week with an empty jar of peanut butter and the foam of a broken snowmobile seat makes for a nice vacation.

I happened to be using a pedometer as part of a corporate wellness initiative at the time. I took a picture of it before I began my journey. It showed 4286 steps. Thirty-six minutes later – 36! – I climbed into a taxi: 7,550 steps.

In other words, from the time I woke up, I (1) did whatever it is I do at home before leaving for the airport, (2) walked through the entire JFK Delta terminal in NY, and (3) still logged only 1022 steps more than it took me to get from my gate in Atlanta to ground transportation.

“Dave,” you might say, “that’s a stupid reason to hate Atlanta’s airport. No one walks; you take the train. You inflicted this upon yourself.” Well, so long as the train is working you’re right. And as anyone can tell you who uses that airport regularly, the train isn’t always working.

But for the record, the walk from the gate to the airtran ain’t exactly a quick jaunt in its own right. And somehow, no matter where you are in Hartsfield, there are always too many people for the amount of space allotted. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an area 50 feet wide or 15, you’re forced to cut around and through an unending sea of humanity, a venture reminiscent of the Cal kickoff returner dodging Stanford defenders and (ultimately) the marching band on his way to the end zone. (Without the exciting and historic payoff at the end.) And there’s not a decent restaurant to be found in the entire place.

Lots of walking, too many people, crappy food. Otherwise, there’s a lot to love about the place if you’re trying to navigate it on a prosthesis.

2. Denver Int’l Airport

Seen from far away as you drive through the never-ending emptiness leading up to it, DIA looks like a fascinating architectural achievement. Once inside, the splendor quickly fades and you have an immediate decision to make: should you go through ground-level security, which is nearby but invariably entraps more people than the population of a small country, or journey to the far-away second-level security gates?

Pick your poison: stay nearby and wait forever with 275,000 people, or walk a great distance and wait just as long behind 8 people because there’s only 1 TSA agent for every 3 lines of passengers. It’s like a cruel joke.

I also had one of my least-favorite TSA experiences there when, at 10:30 at night, I arrived at security in the lower level and was taken to a Cast-Scope machine to get my prosthesis x-rayed. After 10 minutes of failed attempts, the agent informed me that the Cast-Scope machine was down. The solution? Walk half a mile to the next-nearest Cast-Scope. And then learn that the TSA agent doesn’t know how to turn the new machine on, leading me to wonder whether the problem lay in the technology or the person (not) operating it.

Final complaint – while DIA has some nice restaurants, they’re all located in the pre-security part of the airport. In other words, to enjoy them you have to arrive at the airport 10 hours early, as you still have to clear TSA screening after you eat.

1. Phoenix Sky Harbor Int’l Airport

I’ve read books about how early Texans, upon reaching the frontier and seeing the Great Plains for the first time, were both amazed and terrified by the vast, landmark-less void of waist-high grass unfolding in front of them. Apparently, the designers of Phoenix’s airport wanted to instill the same feelings of shock and fear in the hapless travelers wandering its byways.

When you finally make it to your gate, personnel should give you a medal and those tinfoil ponchos usually reserved for marathon runners. Handing out flares for the lost should be standard issue. Running magazines should publish 6-month training schedules for travelers gearing up for a trip to Phoenix.

It’s hard to describe just how much walking you have to do in this airport. Locals may protest, pointing to the numerous moving walkways linking different parts of the structure to each other. Unfortunately for them, my rating already takes that into account – I use those walkways and all of my foregoing comments still apply.

Even worse, after crossing much of the state to reach your gate, you learn that the airport’s designers apparently thought that every jet has only 45 passengers. The serial absence of adequate gate seating makes the 30 minutes before your flight feel like you’re in a refugee camp. Bodies litter the floor. It wouldn’t surprise you to see tin-roofed shacks sprout up if your flight got delayed.

Finally, for reasons I cannot divine, most of the expanses you have to traverse in Sky Harbor are either an incline or decline. To get to the never-ending walkways connecting terminals, you have to walk uphill from your gate. You then enjoy an additional climb on the moving walkway. Eventually, your ascent ends and you’re now on going downhill. Congratulations, you’re (maybe, if you’re lucky) halfway to your final destination. When you hit carpet again after the descent, you go from 75 MPH to 3 MPH in 2 steps. And then you walk down another ramp to your gate.

Distances better traveled by car than foot; most of it uphill or downhill; and chronic seating shortages when you finally get to your destination. Congratulations, Sky Harbor, for winning the inaugural less is more Worst Airport in the USA competition!

Honorable Mention: Chicago O’Hare (Lots of walking and an on-time departure rate of .000000000032%), Orlando (huge security lines and a different screening process – the direct result of TSA agents having no idea what to do with me – every time I go there), and LaGuardia (despite generally short walking distances, one of the dingiest, most depressing airports in the USA; think the “City of Ashes” depicted in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby).

Next week – the 3 best airports for amputees.

3 thoughts on “the best and the worst: airports for amputees (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Two amps on a plane … | less is more

    • Neal:

      LAX didn’t make my list, primarily because I rarely fly into it so I can’t really assess it from the prosthetic-wearing perspective. That being said, the few times I’ve been there I’ve not been happy with it. But perhaps that’s because my singular memory of the place is getting there 3 hours early for a redeye back to NY, seeing Jason Bateman get off a plane with his newborn child (which qualifies as high excitement when waiting for a flight), and ultimately going to board the plane only to learn I was in the wrong terminal. I was supposed to be on a Delta flight leaving at exactly the same time going to exactly the same airport, so I didn’t catch my error while waiting at the American gait.

      I was not happy.

      Took me nearly 2 hours after that to locate a hotel with space, went to bed around 3 AM, and woke up at 5 to go back to the terminal to catch an early morning flight home. That was also the day I learned that trying to hand wash and then blow dry underwear (since I was now in LA for an extra day) with a hotel hair dryer doesn’t really work. (Moral: always bring one extra pair of underwear – it doesn’t take up that much space.)

      It was probably my least favorite travel experience of the last decade. And all my fault. And I associate that with LAX (to bring this full circle).

      Aren’t you happy you mentioned this, Neal?

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