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Logan lags in flier survey

Near bottom for ease of use

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / February 19, 2010

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Logan International Airport has plunged to nearly the bottom of customer satisfaction ratings among 20 of North America’s medium-size airports, faring better than only New York’s La Guardia Airport, according to a study released yesterday by J.D. Power and Associates.

When compared with 63 airports of all sizes, Logan - one of the nation’s busiest - came in eighth from the bottom.

The study measured air travelers’ opinions on accessibility, terminal facilities, check-in, security check, baggage claim, and food and retail services. Logan fell in all six categories this year, ranking below average in each, and customers gave Logan particularly low scores for accessibility, which includes parking, traffic flow, and ease of exiting.

At the airport, some passengers echoed the problems identified in the study.

“When you come out of baggage, it’s a dark and dingy noisy tunnel,’’ said Thomas Dougherty, 61, an energy consultant from Waukesha, Wis., who used to travel 100,000 miles a year. Still, he said, his experiences at Logan are better than they used to be.

Noah Chirico, 18, of Lexington, comes to the airport a few times a month to watch planes and agreed there’s room for improvement: “This airport’s like a zoo . . . it’s all clumped together,’’ he said.

Airport spokesman Matthew Brelis acknowledged that roadway signs can come up quickly on motorists, but he also pointed out that the airport operates on just 1,700 acres.

“No other US airport handles as many passengers on such a small footprint of land,’’ he said. Logan handled 25.5 million passengers last year.

The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, is planning $1 billion in improvements in the next five years that might help improve the airport’s abysmal rankings. Yesterday the board approved funding for 379 projects, including airfield improvements, security enhancements, centralizing the security checkpoint in Terminal C, renovating the Terminal B parking garage, and constructing a consolidated rental car facility.

This year’s J.D. Power ratings continued a slide for Logan. It has been slipping in the rankings since 2007, when it came in seventh among 25 midsize airports. The California-based market research firm, well known for its safety rankings of automobiles, has been doing the airport customer satisfaction surveys for nine years. (A study wasn’t conducted for 2009.)

In the past dozen years, Logan has undergone $4.5 billion worth of improvements, including a new Terminal A, an expanded Terminal E, a bigger parking garage, and a new roadway system and runway. Additionally, last year, Virgin America, Sun Country, Porter, and Southwest airlines all began service out of Logan.

“Perhaps our biggest vote of support in the past year has come from the four airlines which started flying from Logan in 2009,’’ Brelis said.

These improvements haven’t gone unnoticed. “I was amazed at the ease of exiting the airport last night,’’ said Michael Everett, 52, chief technology officer for Maxwell Technologies in San Diego, who was in town on business. “I remember when I was here five years ago, it was a nightmare.’’

Logan’s low ranking was in part due to low scores customers gave the airport for experiences they had before they even stepped foot in the building. Airline analyst Darryl Jenkins pointed out that bad parking and driving experiences can taint every aspect of an airport experience.

“If it’s hard getting in and out, it kind of jaundices the rest of your trip,’’ he said.

The Boston airport’s old age probably doesn’t help either, said Henry Harteveldt, principal airline analyst for Forrester Research Inc., pointing out that several terminals were built in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

“They lack some of the architectural amenities like higher ceilings, wider concourses, and larger gate areas found in more modern terminals,’’ he said.

The older design means security checkpoints are crammed into smaller areas, leading to longer lines during peak travel times, Harteveldt added, and there isn’t a lot of room for restaurants and shops. It can also be tough to make older buildings “feel’’ clean, he said.

More than 12,000 passengers, all traveling in the past year, contributed 24,000 evaluations to the J.D. Power study of small, medium, and large airports; 508 of those evaluations dealt specifically with Logan.

Kansas City International Airport came out on top among medium-size airports, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport scored highest among large airports, and Indianapolis International Airport won out in the small airport category. Rhode Island’s T.F. Green Airport ranked sixth out of 24 small airports.

Overall, the report showed that passengers were more satisfied with their experience at airports than they were in 2008, and 29 airports outperformed the highest scores in the previous study.

“The best airports are raising the performance bar,’’ said Stuart Greif, vice president of global hospitality and travel at J.D. Power.

Keeping passengers happy is important, Greif added, because satisfied customers spend more money.

Those who are “delighted’’ with their airport experience (giving ratings of 10 on a 10-point scale) spend 45 percent more on retail purchases than those who are “disappointed’’ ( giving ratings of 1 to 5), he said.

Technology, which the study notes has “revolutionized’’ air travel, wasn’t part of the survey.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd doesn’t put much faith in the J.D. Power survey, emphasizing that he just went through the Springfield, Mo., airport and doesn’t remember a thing.

“It’s a beauty contest,’’ he said, “that’s all it is.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.