Why is San Diego airport No. 1 in the nation? Hint: location, location

A Southwest Airlines passenger jet lands at San Diego International Airport.
A Southwest Airlines passenger jet lands at San Diego International Airport.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego International Airport may only have one runway and an increasingly cramped Terminal 1, but that didn’t keep it from earning this year’s top ranking among the busiest airports in America.

That’s according to travel website The Points Guy, which took into consideration such criteria as how long it takes to get to the airport, flight delays and amenities like dining and spa facilities.

No surprise, San Diego’s airport, just minutes from downtown, scored the highest on “commute time,” which was just 7 minutes compared to an average 20 minutes for all 50 airports evaluated. Also helping boost its ranking was an ample — and diverse — array of dining options, from Phil’s BBQ to Stone Brewing, plus a relatively low number of flight delays and cancellations.

“Location is the single biggest reason that helped San Diego,” said Ben Mutzabaugh, senior aviation editor for The Points Guy. “We used INRIX, which is the same company that handles the data for the Waze (app). So we pulled in their data for the commute portion of the study. They found the average commute from San Diego’s airport to downtown was 7 minutes, which was an exceptional score. And commute time was heavily weighted in the score for this year.”

While The Points Guy has done similar rankings in past years, it wouldn’t be appropriate to compare this year’s report to past years because the methodology has changed somewhat, Mutzabaugh said. He did note, though, that Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which ranked No. 2 last year, came in second behind San Diego, in part, because it struggled with flight delays after its north runway closed from early January to late February of last year, the report noted.

In a commentary authored by Points Guy contributor Carissa Rawson, she raved about the airport’s light-filled design, “unparalleled location, friendly staff and top-notch lounge.” But her focus was on Terminal 2 and not the airport’s aging Terminal 1 — an omission, said some readers who commented on her report.

“Honestly this review is about half the airport, Terminal 1 is an over-crowded nightmare with few services or amenities,” wrote one reader.

Mutzabaugh acknowledged that visitors are more likely to be wowed by Terminal 2 than the older Terminal 1, but that shouldn’t have affected its No. 1 standing.

“Nearly every airport has some expression of disbelief about why a particular airport is this high or low,” he said. “Clearly, Terminal 2 makes passengers happier than Terminal 1, but we considered both terminals. This is data-driven so there is not a huge objective score applied to this.

“I am a somewhat regular visitor to San Diego, and I can tell you personally I love the San Diego airport, and admittedly I’m flying out of Terminal 2. There’s lots of natural light, the food options are great, and I had good luck with security wait times.”

The San Diego Regional Airport Authority is currently at work on an ambitious $3 billion plan to redevelop the airport, with most of the focus on Terminal 1. The plan is to eventually construct an entirely new building to replace the existing 19 gates and subsequently demolish the existing terminal and add 11 more gates.

Ranked as the worst airport in the U.S. was Chicago’s Midway International Airport, which has few restaurants, long wait times and a long commute, The Points Guy said

Top 5 airports in U.S.

  1. San Diego International Airport
  2. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
  3. Portland (Oregon) International Airport
  4. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  5. Sacramento International Airport