Anybody who questions the wisdom of spending billions to upgrade and expand O’Hare International Airport should read the latest airport satisfaction survey from J.D. Power.
O’Hare fell to dead last in the latest annual ranking of the 20 largest U.S. airports. That’s down from next-to-last in 2020, and third-from-last in 2019. Although O’Hare’s satisfaction score rose 14 points to 772, it fell further behind the average, which climbed 18 points to 798. O’Hare badly lags No. 1 Miami International Airport, which scored 828 on the survey.
The latest survey covers a strange period in air travel, spanning the depths of the COVID-induced collapse last year and a rebound this summer. J.D. Power analysts say satisfaction sagged later in the period, as travelers returning to airports faced increased crowds and found concessions and other amenities closed due to health precautions and staff shortages.
I’m sure those factors came into play at O’Hare. But it’s also likely that the return to summer flying reminded a lot of travelers why they hated O’Hare before the pandemic.
Despite its status as the country’s midcontinent aviation hub, O’Hare consistently ranks near the bottom for customer satisfaction. Travelers run a gantlet of frustrations including flight delays, gate shortages, cramped concourses, long walks between connecting flights and a “people mover” that doesn’t move.
O’Hare recently finished a 16-year, $6 billion runway expansion aimed at reducing delays. A worthwhile project to be sure, but just a first step in a badly needed transformation of O’Hare.
The essential next step is a planned $8.5 billion terminal modernization project that would address O’Hare’s shortcomings and position it for future growth. Unveiled three years ago, O’Hare 21 would double terminal space, easing the crowding in concourses and expanding passenger capacity 25% to 100 million per year. An additional 22 gates would reduce infuriating tarmac delays while allowing more airlines to offer service at O’Hare. The project’s crowning glory is a new Jeanne Gang-designed global terminal that would bring international and domestic flights closer together, eliminating long, anxious slogs between gates.
In short, the project would give O’Hare the 21st century capabilities needed to compete with airports that regularly trounce it in customer satisfaction surveys.
Last year’s plunge in air traffic brought predictions that business travel won’t return to pre-pandemic levels, causing some to wonder if the project would, or should, go forward as planned. But Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee assured my colleagues Greg Hinz and John Pletz in July that O’Hare 21 remains on track for a scheduled completion date of 2028.
That’s good news. Stopping or scaling down the project now would be a mistake. In fact, the uncertainty surrounding post-COVID air travel demand only increases the urgency of improving the customer experience at O’Hare.
Competition intensifies when demand slackens, and customer satisfaction becomes a more important differentiating factor. If business people really do fly less often, they may become choosier about where they fly. Some may choose to avoid O’Hare whenever possible. After all, people tend to avoid unpleasant experiences if they can.
And while O’Hare still offers global connections unmatched by any airport in the central U.S., it can’t assume those connections insulate it from competition. Treating customers as if they have no choice but to do business with you breeds resentment and determination to find alternatives. Other airports that covet O’Hare’s traffic offer the kind of customer experience travelers are looking for. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, for example, ranked third in the J.D. Power survey with a score of 815.
Customer satisfaction is a glaring vulnerability for O’Hare, a weakness that will only grow as airports elsewhere upgrade their facilities and travelers re-evaluate their options. Chicago can’t afford vulnerability at O’Hare, the city’s most important economic engine.
O’Hare offers connections to most major destinations around the world, setting Chicago apart in the competition for business investment and jobs. A steady stream of companies cite O’Hare as the reason they opened offices or moved their headquarters to Chicago.
But they expect those world-class connections to come with a world-class customer experience. O’Hare routinely falls short of that bar. That’s why the terminal modernization project is essential to Chicago’s economic future.