Philadelphia International Airport inched up in passenger satisfaction this year for terminal facilities and amenities such as food, beverages, and retail in JD Power's annual airport-satisfaction survey.
PHL scored 715 out of 1,000 possible points, an improvement over the 688 points scored last year for terminal appearance, airport accessibility, security, check-in, and baggage handling, improving "in all the categories that we measure," said Michael Taylor, JD Power's director of airport studies.
The grade for terminal facilities went up by 25 points, "which is a nice jump, but still lags behind most of the 60 airports in the study" in the condition of terminal buildings, the concourses, hallways, bathroom cleanliness, signs and directions, and access to activities," Taylor said.
PHL ranked near the bottom — just below Fort Lauderdale and above New York LaGuardia — among "large" airports with 20 million to 32.4 million passengers. PHL has more than 30 million annual air travelers.
Although airports are increasingly crowded and airplanes are packed, the 34,695 air travelers surveyed were as happy as they have been since JD Power began its annual survey in 2000. The overall customer-satisfaction score rose 18 points from last year, to a record 749.
The ratings improvement was attributed to completion of major construction projects, shorter Transportation Security Administration waits than in early 2016, when there were staffing problems, and investments in self-bag-tagging technologies and self-service bag-check kiosks.
Orlando, which handles 44 million air travelers, was rated best among "mega" airports, those with 32.5 million or more passengers. What sets Orlando apart? The airport uses sign technology to tell passengers how long TSA waits are. During TSA crush times when lines are long, the airport administration, "the people in suits and ties, come down to help direct traffic through the TSA," Taylor said.
Orlando moved baggage drop-off from the curb to inside, so families with young children can drop off luggage and not carry it through security. "It's an application of new technology and old-fashioned 'what do our passengers need?' " he said.
Technology investment has helped overcome logistical hurdles, the survey found. Sacramento International developed a smartphone app that tells travelers where they can find parking spots, and most airports have improved phone-charging stations and internet access in their terminals.
Some airports use therapy animals to soothe harried passengers. Phoenix Sky Harbor has a team of dogs for passengers to pet while they wait to board. San Francisco International has a pet therapy pig that roams, and Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport has 30 stress-relieving ponies on staff to interact with travelers.
Airports with multiple, older terminals tend to score lower. "Any change you make to one building, you have to make to four others to get a really good impact," Taylor said.
Philadelphia International has six terminals, A to F. Travelers often see only the terminal they are in.
The biggest factor in passenger satisfaction is terminal facilities, Taylor said.
Second in importance to the flying public is access to the airport — ease of getting in and out, convenience of parking, and the experience of checking in, getting through security, and to the gates.
The rankings were based on responses from 34,695 North American travelers, who began or ended their trips at one airport, or passed through on a connecting flight between January and the end of August.
Passengers rated Orlando, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Phoenix tops in the "mega" airport category. John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., Tampa, and Dallas Love Field were ranked best in the "large" category. Sacramento, Indianapolis, and Anchorage ranked highest in the "medium" airport group.
Lauren Hitt, spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, said the city was doing many things to improve customer service at the city-owned airport. She cited two examples: "We worked with airline partners to reduce wait times at TSA checkpoints, and we began the transformation of Terminal B in May."
Airport spokeswoman Mary Flannery said, "While we have not seen the report, we take customer service very seriously and work hard every day to improve the passenger experience. We will be reviewing the findings to look for ways to continue to improve."
PHL last year completed a $161 million expansion and makeover of Terminal F, including a new baggage-claim building. In late 2008, a new connector building opened between Terminals D and E with shops, expanded passenger screening, and more gates. Currently, a major revamp is underway in Terminal B, with iPads at seats in gate areas and new restaurants. The first phase is completed.