Blackpool's fading Victorian glamour and down-at-heel B&Bs may place it in the second division of seaside resorts, but its airport is the best in Britain.
In a survey of 30 UK airports, the small airfield one mile south of the Lancashire town was applauded for the speed of its check-in and security, ease of reaching boarding gates, quality of food outlets and overall ambience. Travellers, mostly flying to Mediterranean islands, gave Blackpool a satisfaction score of 80 in the survey by Which? Holiday.
In a sign that travellers prefer compact, uncongested airports, two other small airports, London City and Robin Hood in Doncaster, claimed second and third with scores of 78 and 76.
Britain's biggest airports, owned by the country's biggest airport operator BAA – Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted – all performed dismally. Heathrow's Terminal 1 was ranked the worst of 38 terminals, joined at the bottom by Heathrow Terminals 2, 3 and 4 and Gatwick's north and south terminals. Stansted trailed in seventh-bottom position, just below Manchester and Luton, the UK's fourth and fifth biggest airports.
Of BAA's major airports, only the newly opened Heathrow Terminal 5 – which experienced mass bag losses and delays last year – escaped damning criticism, coming 15th from bottom with a score of 54. Customers rated BAA's London airports poorly for getting through security and reaching boarding gates, food and overall experience.
Which? Holiday conceded that Heathrow and Gatwick would inevitably suffer in terms of the distance between security and boarding gates. Nonetheless, Which? warned BAA not to use Heathrow's size as an excuse, and pointed out that in a global passenger survey last year, Heathrow, with 67 million passengers a year, came 120th (out of 160), while Atlanta – the world's busiest airport with 90 million users last year – came 28th.
A total of 9,221 Which? members rated 38 airport terminals for eight criteria; parking, check-in, experience, time and distance through security, food outlets, shops, airside amenities (such as number of seats in boarding gates), and speed of baggage reclaim on return journeys.
Blackpool, a base for Spitfires during the Second World War, scored maximum marks for check-in, time and distance, and the overall experience of using the airport. The airport will find life tougher this year following the withdrawal in January of the low-cost carrier Ryanair, which flew 100,000 passengers a year to Dublin and Barcelona.
Balfour Beatty, the construction giant which also owns Exeter airport, has signed a deal with Loganair and Flybe to start flying from Blackpool to the Isle of Man from May.
BAA said that customers were starting to be treated better, adding that it would spend £6bn on improving its facilities by 2014. Blackpool handled 439,200 passengers in 2008, compared with BAA, whose seven airports handled 145 million passengers.
Lorna Cowan, editor of Which? Holiday, said: "It seems clear that Which? members prefer the experience of flying from smaller regional airports to using the larger ones. So it is well worth looking into the routes offered from smaller airports when planning a holiday to short-haul destinations."
UK airports handled a total of 235 million passengers last year – 1.9 per cent fewer than in 2007, the first fall in traffic for 17 years.
Britain's best - and worst - airports
THE 10 BEST
* Blackpool airport
Annual passengers: 439,200
Best feature: Check-in, food outlets, airside amenities, return waiting times, experience
Worst feature: Shops
Score: 80 per cent
*Durham Tees Valley
THE 10 WORST
* Heathrow Terminal 1
Annual passengers: 14.3 million
Best features: None
Worst features: Time and distance, shops, return waiting time, experience
Score: 31 per cent