Is Chicago the Worst Airport in the US?

It may come as no surprise to frequent travelers that the TSA has been having some major problems lately. With the inception of TSA Precheck, the agency expected many more people to sign up for the program, and for a frequent traveler you have every reason to belong. TSA destaffed many locations in the anticipation of many more people using the TSA Precheck lines. A major rush on signing up for Precheck never happened though.

Now, the TSA is facing a problem of their own making. Lowering staff levels has created long lines at many airports, and we are still in a part of the year that shows low travel numbers. High volume travel will show up closer to summer time, exacerbating a major travel problem.

This all brings me to the question I need to ask, is Chicago a stand alone problem area. Now I have to admit, as an East Coast based traveler, I don’t see much of the West Coast cities, so my viewpoint is obviously biased. Reports have been calling out Philadelphia as a bad city for the TSA, but I haven’t seen much of an issue there, nothing beyond the usual. TSA Precheck tends to operate quite smoothly in Philadelphia though which may be why I haven’t noticed much at my home airport.

Chicago seems to be a whole other story. In the last month I’ve needed to travel through Chicago a few times, and my fiance needed to fly into and out of Chicago. My first trip in the last month came on my return from France. Chicago is poorly set up to handle international transfers, requiring people to exit the airport, board a train and then re-enter the terminal they need. I did this at 8pm at night, and there was no TSA Precheck open in the main American Airlines hub terminal. This is borderline unacceptable. Precheck is a paid program, and as such has a level of service expectation that seems to be falling short right along with normal TSA lines. 8pm isn’t exactly a dead time in the airport, a Precheck lane short certainly be open, hell for a paid program a TSA Precheck lane should always be open.

Returning from Beijing I had more issues with Precheck. While the Precheck was open, the area was cordoned off upon our arrival. There was a good 10-15 people wondering how to get into Precheck before someone wandered over and opened it up for us. Then closing it again confusing more passengers. She was obviously the person set up to check boarding passes for the Precheck logo that denotes they are part of the program. If this is her job, she needs to organize it better, and be present at all times.

My fiance had an issue on her return flight recently where she arrived at the airport very far in advance of the takeoff time and still had a bit of worry. The line was so long that she had to wait 2 full hours in a line that stretched beyond the roped off areas. People were pushing in line to make it through faster. This is not an acceptable way to operate. Putting aside the fact that the TSA is inherently unable to properly provide the job they are tasked with, allowing thousands of passengers miss flights is not just an issue for passengers, but also airline who likely lose lots of revenue on every missed flight.

Problems at O'hare go well beyond those of the TSA, right into the Customs and Border Protection area where Global Entry was completely non-function on my return from Beijing. Once again, this is a paid program that is relied upon by many passengers. Not having it working cost me a lot of time, and also added a thorough bag search on to my day that would have been bypassed had the Global Entry kiosks been operational.

While these issues are certainly not isolated to Chicago, the way the airport is being managed seems to make the issues worse. As it goes for airports I frequent, Chicago is by far the single worst offender in my travels. So bad in fact that I am considering cutting it out of my travels as much as possible. Unfortunately with a coming trip to Chicago itself, I am not completely able to rid myself of this airport.