Here's Why Veteran Pilots Love The Same Airports We All Hate

In December 2023, AirHelp — a company focused on passenger rights — released a report following a survey that listed America's best and worst airports. The five airports that made it onto the list of the worst included San Francisco International, Las Vegas Harry Reid International, Denver International, Fort Lauderdale International, and Newark Liberty International. These are all fairly busy airports, with Denver being the busiest of the bunch and ranking sixth in the world as of 2023 according to Airports Council International. 

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport — one of the busiest in all of America — is also known to make regular appearances in similar lists of negatively reviewed airports. While the average passenger may have tons of reasons to rate an airport poorly, you might wonder, are these same reasons also valid for the flight crew? Given the extra perks, airline staff and pilots in particular, do not experience the same issues in these airports as average passengers.

This is, perhaps, why some of these pilots have contrasting and positive opinions about airports that regularly make it to the lists of the most hated. Our source of information is retired Captain Richard Levy, a veteran pilot who spent 41 years of his life flying for a major U.S. airline before taking mandatory retirement at age 65. Captain Levy — who currently runs Aviation Expert Consulting — has an entirely different take on busy airports from the opinions of many passengers around the world. 

Busy airports are more fun

Believe it or not, Captain Levy believes that the busier the airport, the more fun and exciting it is for him. He has a handful he particularly likes. In America, his favorites include Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, both of which regularly make it to the lists of the busiest airports in the U.S.

It's not unsurprising that these travel hubs aren't known to be loved by passengers, with both of them being rated as 3-Star airports by Skytrax. The internet offers multiple horror stories from those who had the misfortune of transiting through these infamous airports. However, for Captain Levy they're a great experience just because they're busy.

Another area where the choices of veteran pilots differ from that of average passengers is their preference for long-range flights. While most travelers dread the prospect of being trapped inside a widebody aircraft for 15 or so hours, veteran pilots seem to relish such flights. Thanks to the frequent long-range flights these pilots take, many of them have favorite airports outside the U.S.

In the case of Captain Levy, some of his favorite airports outside of the U.S. include the Hong Kong International Airport, London's Heathrow International Airport, and the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India. Just like the American airports listed above, all of these are major international hubs and, therefore, among the busiest airports in the world.

There's excitement in a challenge

It's not just long-haul flights and crowded transit hubs that veteran pilots have a penchant for. They are always up for a challenge, which is why they love landing at airports that require them to make maximum use of their flying skills. This almost always includes airports located at high altitudes, or with exceptionally short runways. When asked about such landing spots, one of the first airports that came to Captain Levy's mind was the Toncontín International Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This location has been featured in several documentaries and is often regarded as the second most extreme airport in the world. Second, perhaps only to the Lukla airport in Nepal. Other airports that pose a unique set of challenges to pilots include the El Alto International Airport in La Paz, Bolivia. Located at 13,325 feet above sea level, this holds the distinction for being the highest international airport in the world. 

The U.S. has a handful of airports that pilots consider tricky too. Notable among these is the Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum, Colorado. Located at an elevation of 6,547 feet, this airport sits in mountainous terrain making it a tricky approach. An equally technical departure procedure ensures that pilots are always on their toes. Another unique airport for Captain Levy is the Jackson Hole Airport, located in Wyoming. At an altitude of 6,451 feet, it also has an extremely short runway only 6,298 feet long. This combination makes for a challenge that veteran pilots have come to relish.