the best and the worst: airports for amputees (part 2)

Airport #1

The view from the #1-ranked airport for amputees.

Last week I listed the three worst airports for amputees in the United States. This week, we turn to decidedly happier venues: the best of the best.

#3 Tampa International Airport

I’ve only flown out of Tampa twice, but both times I’ve had great experiences there. Tampa is the only “big” airport to crack the top 3, and like many big airports, it employs the hub and spoke approach to air travel: a central terminal for check-in, then a train to individual gates.

But unlike most big airports, Tampa doesn’t make you clear security in the main building. So unlike Atlanta and Denver – both of which made the “worst” list last week – you avoid standing in a massive security line with 20,054 other travelers. You instead first take the airtran to your specific terminal. Only then do you get subjected to TSA screening, with a reasonable number of people and, in my limited experience, excellent TSA agents.

“How excellent?” you ask.

I went through there early this year on a Sunday afternoon. The Patriots had a playoff game against the Houston Texans. When I arrived at security, only two things separated me from kickoff: (1) 10 minutes; and (2) a significant contingent of Canadian wheelchair rugby players immediately in front of me. I resigned myself to the fact that I would miss the first quarter, as 6 wheelchair athletes stood between me and the bar showing the game.

But a TSA official called for reinforcements, and suddenly, multiple agents materialized. I got screened, made the acquaintance of one of the Canadian athletes, walked to the bar and had an iced tea in front of me as the game began. I can’t overstate how amazing that last sentence is. At most airports, without multiple people requiring special screening in front of me, it takes 10 minutes for me to get screened. (Average breakdown: 3 minutes waiting for a “male assist” to be located; 3 minutes for pat down/swab results; 4 minutes to explain that the giant metal club in my suitcase is actually a shoehorn.)

But in Tampa, with a squadron of wheelchairs in front of me, I went from “guy on the line” to “guy watching Pats kill the Texans” in under 10 minutes. Because a TSA agent exercised rational judgment. It was a remarkable achievement.

Separate and apart from that, once you make it to the individual terminals, they’re laid out so that you don’t have to walk far to get to your gate. Tampa also has decent restaurants at the gates and more-than-adequate charging stations for people who (or computers that) require power.

#2 Reagan National (D.C.)

Reagan has many things going for it. You can access the DC Metro easily from the airport, getting you into the heart of the city in less than 15 minutes for only a few dollars. The TSA agents tend to be efficient and professional, and there are lots of them. It has a few excellent restaurants, albeit on the wrong side of (i.e., before) the security line. However, the eateries sit close enough to the screening areas that you can monitor line lengths and still make your flight without a problem. Once you clear security, there’s never far to walk to get to a gate, even if you’re at the most distant one in the terminal.

Also, Reagan houses lots of interesting people and sights. In the last few years, I’ve seen Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (she’s tiny), Chris Matthews (he’s not), sportswriter and ESPN personality Michael Wilbon (doing a radio spot from the luggage area) and the retired space shuttle on the back of a jetliner (thanks to the Reagan intercom system, which told everyone to look out the airport-facing windows to see the shuttle as it circled around DC).

The only bad thing about Reagan is that if I’m there, it generally means I’m flying back to LaGuardia, which received “honorable mention” honors in my list of worst airports.

#1 Long Beach Airport (CA)

I fly into Long Beach 6-10 times per year on average. It’s the smallest airport on this list, made even more delightful by recent renovations that transformed it from small, charming but slightly decrepit to small, charming, and well-appointed. Allow me to describe the highlights of the typical Long Beach experience.

  1. You get to enter and exit the plane directly from the tarmac, which is wonderfully old school. It’s much more impressive to see a jet from the ground than to just walk down a jet bridge.
  2. Because of 1, you can enter or exit either from the front or the back of the plane, which typically shortens the boarding/”deplaning” process.
  3. Many of the newly-refurbished gates have multiple charging stations and iPads for travelers to use.
  4. Excellent (and multiple) new food options, ranging from food court fare – none of which involves a national fast-food chain – to a decent restaurant/bar just past the security area when you enter the airport.
  5. Baggage claim, which I almost never use, is outside, a bonus given the typically stellar weather in Southern California.
  6. The rental car area is about 50 yards from the terminal/baggage claim. On one of the very rare occasions where I did bring a checked bag to Long Beach, I deplaned, walked through the terminal, procured my rental car, walked back to baggage claim, grabbed my bag and left the airport. Total time from plane doors opening to driving out of the airport? Fifteen minutes.
  7. I don’t think I’ve ever waited longer than 10 minutes on a security line at Long Beach over the past 7+ years. They always seem to have enough lines for the number of passengers coming through the airport.
  8. The TSA agents are almost unfailingly polite, friendly, and efficient. Notably, as of August, they still didn’t even have the full-body scanners that actually expedite the security process for amputees. So I emphasize efficiency in light of the fact that they’re still forced to do full pat-downs and more complete swabbing than any other airport on this list. When they get the scanners – which the TSA agent informed me were coming soon as he apologized for the “delay” I had to endure during my last trip through there a few weeks ago – they’ll be even faster.

Congrats, Long Beach! The winning airport gets … well, nothing, other than my continued cross-country loyalty.

Honorable Mention: Chicago Midway (not because it’s an awesome airport, but simply because it’s not O’Hare and you need to get to Chicago somehow), Knoxville (TN) (I used to have to go there at least annually for Amputee Coalition Board Meetings and enjoyed the short walking distances and decent amenities), and Terminal 5 at JFK (JFK has 7 different terminals, each of which is like its own little airport and which vary dramatically from god-awful (American, Delta (though they’re renovating) to awesome (T5, which houses JetBlue and has multiple good restaurants, an enormous food court, decent shopping, and nice gates that are within easy walking distance)).

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