STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In the grand days of railroad travel, passengers arrived in monumental terminals. There was grandeur, style and comfort, everything you do not expect in the average modern day American airport.
In an annual survey of the worlds best airports, no American airport ranked in the top 25 this year. The best America has to offer is the Cincinnati airport, which hit the list at number 30.
NPR's Brian Naylor flew there to find out what makes an airport good.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When you arrive at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, also known by its airport code CVG, one of the first voices you hear is this one.
MARTY BRENNAN: Hi, this is Marty Brennaman, voice of the Cincinnati Reds, welcoming you to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport, voted best regional airport in North America three years in a row.
NAYLOR: It's one of the touches that airport customer service director Brian Cobb highlights - the airports Midwestern charm.
BRIAN COBB: If you're homegrown individual like am, this is my home. I'm back home or I'm leaving home and I know exactly where I'm at. If you're a visitor, you get an immediate sense of culture and tough and feel of what our community is like instead of the industrialized traditional airport of back in the day.
NAYLOR: That includes the presence of volunteers like Charlotte Davis at an information counter. What's her job here?
CHARLOTTE DAVIS: Just tell people where to go and I'm darn good at it.
NAYLOR: The Cincinnati airport has about every amenity an air traveler could desire. Its light and airy, there are plenty of places to shop and eat, lots of power outlets and USB connectors. It's got free Wi-Fi. Cobb says even the bathrooms are designed with business travelers in mind.
COBB: Again, I'm going to be carrying a brief case, potentially, or a purse. How do I make sure that doesn't get wet? So having the ability place it next to the sink where it's in close reach, it's never out of my possession, but I know that it's going to remain dry.
NAYLOR: That attention to detail, the cleanliness, and friendly service is why Ray Niemeyer says he makes it a point to connect through CVG on his business flights.
RAY MIEMEYER: Yeah. I have the option thru Delta to go thru Atlanta, Cincinnati and Detroit and I typically try to go through Cincinnati because of the tighter connections and the better service I've had than the other two cities.
NAYLOR: There are other amenities: a train to take travelers between terminals, jetway walls decorated with pictures of Cincinnati landmarks. The only things CVG lacks are flights and passengers. The airport, actually located in Northern Kentucky, was a major hub for Delta, but the airline sharply cut back its service here after it merged with Northwest in 2008. The flights that do remain are expensive and air travelers have been lured away to other airports in the region served by Southwest Air where fares are lower.
Still, according to the British firm Skytrax, which says it surveyed millions of international air travelers, online and by phone, CVG at number 30 worldwide, is the top-ranked American airport. Number one overall is Singapore.
So what makes a good airport? It's all about the flow, from parking garage to gate, says Mark Perryman. He's president of Landrum and Brown, an airport planning consulting firm based in Cincinnati.
MARK PERRYMAN: Making sure that flow is smooth and easy for a passenger to understand, easy for a passenger to find their way. That's what makes a good airport. And the better airports have very smooth flow of passengers, not waiting in long queues or lines for security or even concessions; waiting for that hot dog or picking up that magazine.
NAYLOR: Perryman says the TSA security experience is also a big factor in traveling satisfaction.
PERRYMAN: How is security handled and where is it handled? If it's in an open area where you don't feel claustrophobic, it makes that process that everyone's got to go through better than if it were in a broom closet.
NAYLOR: He gives CVG high marks for its airy and spacious screening area. Perryman says one reason airports overseas get such good reviews from travelers is they're often subsidized by national governments, whereas most U.S. facilities rely on user fees and are expected to be self-sustaining. And Perryman says he does see airports improving.
PERRYMAN: There is a sense of renaissance, I guess, if you will, coming back into airports. You see it in the design and the amenities that are being brought back in. Those were not nearly as utilitarian as they were during an earlier period that we've gone through.
NAYLOR: Still as long as travelers have to wait in lines to take off their belts and shoes, it's unlikely any airport will seem as glamorous as the come-fly-with-me days of the 1950s and '60s.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.