According to a new Wall Street Journal survey of 4,800 travelers, the three best large U.S. airports are Denver, Orlando, and Phoenix, in that order. The airports were ranked on 15 metrics such as convenience, flight cancellations, on-time arrivals, etc.

Dig deeper into the survey, however, and you'll find a common theme that sets the airports apart--a leadership decision was made at each airport to elevate the customer experience. Happy people are happy flyers. Here's how they did it. 

1. Denver International Airport

When Denver first opened in 1995, it was hard to believe it would ever top a list of best airports. As the Wall Street Journal points out, Denver was "perhaps the most hated airport in America." The high-tech baggage system was such a fail, it became a national joke.

Denver turned itself around when it fixed its technical glitches and began to focus on how passengers spent the hours before their flight. Denver's management followed Steve Jobs' advice when he said, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." About seven years ago, Denver began "stealing" ideas from the best airports in the world. After visiting Munich's public plaza, Denver's leadership team built a similar plaza with a free pop-up skating rink in the winter and a mini-golf course in the summer.

The passenger experience is the "number one thing" the Denver airport focuses on (outside of security, of course). That means upgrading to faster Wi-Fi or adding 10,000 electrical charging outlets where people sit. "A happy passenger spends more money," says CEO Kim Day.

2. Orlando International Airport

Orlando's a tricky airport to rank because anyone who has flown out of it knows has long the security lines can get when families pour out of the theme parks. Frequent afternoon thunderstorms also cause delays. Orlando recognizes the challenge and--like its Disney World neighbors--it tries to keep customers happy while they wait and travel through the airport.

At Orlando, management's goal is to 'delight' customers. Delightful experiences don't always start with good food choices or free Wi-Fi. A great experience starts with courteous and helpful employees, which is why Orlando focuses on employee training.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Orlando now has a customer-service department that "trains all airport employees, from fast-food workers to skycaps to TSA officers, on how to make eye contact, be productive and pick up trash."

When employees are hired at Orlando, they know their goal is "deliver exceptional customer service." They're constantly reminded to smile, display appropriate body language and use a calm tone of voice when people get agitated. They're taught to be pro-active and to anticipate the next step in a passenger's journey.

Orlando has an effective training strategy to encourage employees. Everyone gets recognition cards they can fill out and submit when they see one of their peers going above and beyond. Here's the key--employees get recognized for providing good service to passengers and to each other. Top performers are featured on the company's website, intranet and are given awards throughout the year.  

3. Phoenix Sky Harbor

I love dogs. Although I feel like petting service dogs, I keep my hands off because I know better. In the Phoenix airport, however, anyone can pet dogs wearing purple vests that read "Pet Me". The program is called Navigator Buddies and the dogs are a hit.

Phoenix bills itself as  "America's Friendliest Airport." It's not just a slogan. It's a philosophy that drives everything--from hiring and training to deciding which amenities to offer. Small touches like roaming therapy dogs make a big difference to harried travelers. Other amenities include employees with noticeable "ask me" pins on their vests and designated kid-friendly restaurant options before and after security.

Yes, happy people spend more money and give brands stellar reviews. But happy customers start with happy employees who are trained and recognized for creating great guest experiences.