Dallas Fort Worth Was Just Called the ‘Worst Airport to Fly Out Of’ – And Here’s Why

If you think summer travel is fun, then you probably weren’t flying through this place.

Anthony Grant
Delayed and/or stranded American Airlines passengers line up and wait for assistance at DFW Airport May 24, 2024. Anthony Grant

Did you know that Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is larger than the island of Manhattan? That nugget of information should come as no surprise, considering that everything is bigger in Texas — including the hailstones — but had I known that I would have jumped through hoops to avoid it for a recent flight — which incidentally got canceled.

Failing to dodge that bullet, however, I was hardly surprised when I learned that Dallas just ranked at the top of a list of the worst airports to fly out of — even worse than Chicago’s O’Hare. 

According to that report from AirHelp, nearly half of the DFW’s flights were disrupted in May. By contrast, at JFK, less than a quarter of flights were disrupted. 

Yet let’s get back to Texas, which is pretty good at remembering the Alamo but comes up short in the awesome airports department. Why is that?

True, the weather has something to do with it. Dallas lies at the southern end of Tornado Alley, and May and June are peak tornado months. Sure enough, on May 24 when I had the misfortune of having to change flights at Dallas after a long-haul from London, the weather was dicey. We landed in a thick ochre soup of storm clouds and lightning, but the pilot navigated his way through that capably.

The problems started on the ground, because weather delays in other parts of the country were ricocheting back to Dallas in the form of rolling delays and flight cancellations. 

Many travelers flying on American Airlines, such as myself, were caught up in the maelstrom, and it was not pretty. Neither is DFW, for that matter. I have written about some airports that have great works of art and what-have-you, but as the ghost of Sam Houston is my witness, DFW isn’t one of them. Rarely will the traveler see so much poured concrete applied so artlessly and with such unchecked sprawl: next to this place, Terminal 1 at JFK is the Pompidou Center.

To be completely fair, one cannot pin the blame for rippling flight delays and cancellations wholly on the airport — without the airlines, after all, there would be no airport. DFW, as it happens, is the largest hub for American Airlines.

While the AirHelp survey focused on flight delays, there are other factors that contribute to or detract from the quality of the traveler’s experience at an airport. A big one is the manner in which the airlines manage, or sometimes mismanage, the process by which sometimes unavoidable flight delays are communicated to ticketed passengers.

Indeed, an airport spokesperson told me with characteristic helpfulness that “airlines are responsible for gate management and passenger communications about those changes.”

For my flight to Palm Springs from Dallas, American announced flight delays and gate changes no fewer than 13 times — something I have never experienced at an airport anywhere in the world. 

Worse, some of those changed gates were in different terminals, and as noted above, the Dallas airport is bigger than the island of Manhattan. 

One or two gate changes is manageable, but after a half-dozen or so it starts to feel less like musical gates and more like actual torture. I observed many travelers, some senior citizens, some young mothers with babies, brought to the brink of physical exhaustion in their efforts to keep up with all the seemingly haphazard gate changes — and that was just for my flight.

There appeared to be a single customer service counter in Terminal D, and passengers I spoke to told me they were waiting hours just to speak to someone. 

Under such trying circumstances it can be exceptionally difficult to keep one’s inner travel Karen under lock and key, but I managed. So when I finally got to ask a gate agent what the reason was for a system that by most accounts appeared to be going haywire, she said to me “Honey, we’re the world’s biggest airline. This is a big airport. If there’s an airplane already parked at the gate when your plane is supposed to fly out of it, we need to change the gate. That’s why you shouldn’t pay attention to a single gate change announcement until one hour before your flight.”

That stealthy admission adumbrates the whole mess. People were literally running in circles, at risk of dehydration or collapse — most stores and restaurants in the Dallas terminals are closed by midnight, even though delayed flights can technically still leave in the wee hours — trying to keep up with a system that has futility built right into it. 

Contrast this with my experience at another enormous airport, London Heathrow. There, the flight monitor screens in the terminals do not list a flight’s departure gate until the gate is actually known — thus avoiding the changing-gate Whac-A-Mole that can make flying through Dallas such a miserable experience. Sometimes the announcement only comes about an hour before the flight, but so what? Presumably you are already past security and in the correct terminal, so there won’t be much farther to go.

Taking a cue from the British on streamlining gate changes won’t eliminate any Texas tornados, but it could make one’s travel experience at Dallas a whole lot easier.

The New York Sun

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