Small airports soar above their big-name rivals in Which? survey of the UK’s best and worst airports

Small airports including Doncaster Sheffield, Exeter and Liverpool John Lennon have beaten their big-name rivals to be crowned best in the UK this year, with many larger hubs crippled by excessive delays and cancellations.

Doncaster Sheffield Airport topped the consumer champion’s survey for the fourth consecutive time, after almost 7,500 Which? members were asked to rate their experiences at UK airports over the past two years. The airport is however due to shut down imminently, with the last flight departing in the next few weeks.

With a customer score of 85 per cent, travellers praised the ‘fantastic, helpful staff’ and ‘faultless service’, awarding the airport’s employees a full five stars. The airport also scooped five star ratings for queues through security and at baggage reclaim, as well as for seating and toilet facilities, with one respondent enthusing their experience was ‘how air travel should be’.

The airport did however drop to 4 stars for queues at check-in and bag drop, while it received its lowest ratings for the shopping experience offered – rating three stars for the price of goods, and just two stars for the range of shops.

Exeter and Liverpool John Lennon Airports tied in second place in the consumer champion’s survey, with a customer score of 83 per cent. Both airports earned Which? Recommended Provider status for the first time. Exeter scored a near-perfect set of five- star ratings, dropping to two stars only on the choice of shops available. Multiple respondents commented on the ‘small, friendly’ feel of the airport, with travellers praising the ease and convenience they experienced, and notably, a lack of queues.

Liverpool John Lennon Airport also rated highly for wait times, achieving an impressive five stars across check-in, bag-drop, security, passport control and baggage reclaim. Respondents praised the airport as ‘uncrowded’ with ‘minimal queues’ while also singling out an intuitive layout which made the space ‘easy to navigate’.

Dropping one point to four stars on seating, staff, and toilets, like Exeter it received its lowest star rating for the shopping experience on offer, achieving just three stars for both prices in shops and range of outlets available.

Its performance is in sharp contrast to its Northwest rival Manchester, which scooped the dubious accolade of taking the three lowest spots in the rankings. At the very bottom of the charts with a customer satisfaction score of just 38 per cent was Manchester’s Terminal 3, which scored a lowly one star for queues at security, seating, prices in shops and the range of shops on offer.

It managed no higher than two stars in any of the remaining categories. Travellers dissatisfied with their experience at the terminal described it as ‘chaotic’, ‘heaving’, and ‘an end-to-end shambles’, with many expressing their disappointment at long queue times, not just through security, but even for refreshments.

Manchester Terminals 1 and 2 fared marginally better, with customer satisfaction scores of 41 per cent and 47 per cent respectively. Like Terminal 3, they scored just one star for queue times at security, though Terminal 2 distinguished itself as the only Manchester terminal to score 3 stars in any category, which it achieved both for seating and toilet facilities.

Among London airports, City came out head and shoulders above the rest, achieving joint third place in the tables overall (tied with Southampton), while also having the distinction of being the only London airport to make it into the national top 5.

It achieved an impressive five stars across all queue types, from check-in, bag-drop, security, passport control and baggage reclaim. It also rated four stars for quality of seating available and helpfulness of staff. Respondents who rated the airport highly praised their experience as ‘slick’, ‘pleasant’ and ‘painless’, and also commented on the convenience of its location.

At the UK’s busiest airport, Heathrow, it was the ‘spacious’ and ‘modern’ Terminal 5 that performed best, achieving a commendable four stars across all types of queues, and an overall customer satisfaction score of 60 per cent.

Its counterparts, terminals 2, 3 and 4 all languished in the bottom half of the table however, with Terminal 4 achieving a customer satisfaction score of just 48 per cent. It rated only one star for the variety of shops and two stars across all types of queues, as well as for the overall experience delivered by staff. One respondent shared that there was ‘much room for improvement’, while another remarked the ‘queues were ridiculous’.

Guy Hobbs, Editor of Which? Travel said:

“This year we’ve witnessed unprecedented chaos at many of the UK’s largest airports. Travellers reported extensive queues and unhelpful staff, with resources pushed to breaking point.

“Just a few years ago, travellers may have paid little attention to their choice of airport – but now it may just make or break your trip. Wherever possible, we’d recommend opting for smaller airports, which have generally offered a smoother and less stressful experience for their passengers over the last two years.”


Notes to editors


A Manchester Airport Spokesperson said: “We apologise to any customer who feels their experience was not of the standard we want to deliver over the past two years.

“The pandemic was the biggest crisis faced by our industry in its history. At one stage passenger numbers at Manchester Airport dropped to just 5 per cent of normal levels and airports around the world had to cut costs just to survive.

 “Earlier this year, the whole of the travel industry then faced unprecedented challenges as travel restrictions were removed and demand returned rapidly to the market, and Manchester Airport was no different.

“The hugely competitive employment market and delays in training and vetting meant there were times when we were unable to keep up with passenger demand, which resulted in longer waiting times than we would like.

“As the summer progressed, and hundreds of new colleagues were welcomed into the business, service levels improved consistently and we are now in a place where we can provide a good standard of service to passengers. For example, in September, 97% of passengers passed through security in under 30 minutes, and this improvement was delivered without the need to impose flight cancellations on our airlines, which meant more than 14m people travelled through Manchester this summer.

 “Airlines, baggage handling companies and others operating on our site faced similar challenges throughout the summer and we are aware this impacted some of the services they provide, such as check-in and baggage reclaim.

 “Even though these are not services we deliver directly, we are closely managing the performance of our partners, making clear the standards we expect from them and providing support where necessary. We are looking forward to delivering a positive experience to all our passengers this winter, and into summer 2023.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “This is an amateur survey with inaccurate and misleading conclusions. What is clear is that Heathrow has faced unprecedented growth this year, as passenger numbers rose faster and higher than any other European hub, with more than 18 million passengers using the airport this summer. We have seen thousands of people joining or returning to work across the 400 companies that operate here. After the two years of international travel lockdown, this was always going to be a tough year and colleagues across the airport have put in a monumental effort to meet those challenges. Our focus continues to be on building back capacity so that we can deliver the consistent, high-quality service our passengers expect at Heathrow.”

Full table of results:

  • In August 2022, Which? surveyed 7,469 members of its online panel, who reported 7,963 airport experiences over the past two years (July 2020 – July 2022). Owing to post-pandemic travel disruption, and subsequently fewer travellers in 2021 than in a typical year, the survey recorded experiences from the past 2 years of travel, to ensure strong sample sizes across all airports evaluated.

  • The customer score is based on a combination of overall satisfaction and how likely respondents are to recommend the airport. Those airports with the same customer score are listed in the table in alphabetical order.

  • To calculate the star ratings, Which?’s survey asked respondents to rank their recent airport experiences based on ten criteria including queue times at check-in, bag drop, security, passport control and baggage reclaim, the standard of facilities such as seating and toilets, helpfulness of staff, the range of shops and price of goods on offer. Some of the experiences ranked will not be under the direct control of airport management, for example, UK border controls.

  • Sample sizes are proportionate to market share. For example, Heathrow Terminal 4 reopened in June 2022, so will have a smaller, but proportionate sample size, when compared with Heathrow Terminal 5.

  • With many travellers reporting chaos at airports this summer, your choice of airport may now have a significant bearing on the success and enjoyment of your trip. As a result, the consumer champion has awarded Which? Recommended Status to the leading airports for the first time.

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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