JetBlue's Comfy New Place to While Away the Hours

The airline's $743 million Terminal 5 at JFK is designed to provide passengers a stress-free and stylish experience, even if they're stuck there

JetBlue (JBLU) built its much vaunted reputation for service on the concept of a high-value carrier, one that has retained its designer perks, such as leather seats and snazzy graphics, as well as good prices, even in an age of diminished passenger expectations. So when JetBlue realized in 2004 that it needed more space at its New York City hub, the carrier embraced the idea of a flagship terminal at JFK International Airport behind the iconic, Eero Saarinen-designed TWA building, using Saarinen's winged structure as a focal point and inspiration.

Conceived at a time when the future looked brighter for the industry, officials decided to carry on building Terminal 5 even when high oil prices sent airline fortunes, including JetBlue's, into the tank. "It is certainly a tough economic environment," acknowledges Todd Burke, a spokesman for the airline. "But there was no hesitation to go ahead, because this building is an investment in our future." T5, as it's called, is set to open on Oct. 1.

On a recent sneak preview of T5, there was no evidence of difficult economic times—but clearly still a lot of work to be done. JetBlue kicked in $80 million of the $743 million cost, and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey covered the rest. The 635,000-square foot building, designed by the architecture and design firm Gensler, will accommodate 20 million passengers a year, 30% of JFK's total annual number, from 26 gates. It includes a 55,000-sq.-ft. retail and food area known as the Marketplace, based on a design concept by David Rockwell of Rockwell Group. The airline, in which Lufthansa holds a 19% stake, has 600 daily flights to 50 cities in five countries.

Countering Rage

The terminal is a matte grey metal-and-glass structure that isn't likely to win awards for architectural daring. But it is the first terminal built from the ground up in the U.S. since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it incorporates efforts to minimize passenger rage due to delays and overcrowding. A spacious, 30-ft.-wide curbside allows easy unloading of luggage and kids, while inside are 20 security lanes. Passengers will find free wireless throughout the building, and food can be delivered right to the gate, ordered from concessions that include Deep Blue Sushi and The Loft, as well as more upscale restaurants, such as La Vie, a brasserie to be run by the executive chefs of Balthazar and Pastis, two acclaimed Manhattan restaurants. Each gate has a roomy seating area designed to accommodate all passengers comfortably. These elements, says Bill Hooper, a Gensler architect and T5's project manager, "allow passengers to move at their own pace, decompress, and reduce stress."

A walk through the new terminal, even before it teems with people, suggests that JetBlue and the designers do want to relieve passenger anxiety. While many airport terminals are "mean spaces" with narrow passageways, too few seats, and crowded restrooms, T5 boasts high ceilings and abundant natural light, even in the baggage claim area, which is usually a dark, cramped cave. A wide, 225-ft.-long bench will adorn the security area so passengers can put their shoes back on easily and collect belongings. Tables and chairs by Moroso in the gate and food areas will please design aficionados, as will sweeping views of the 1962 Saarinen building (which is not currently being used) from a 800-ft.-long elevated walkway to the building from the air train.

Notoriously raunchy airport bathrooms have also been given a once-over: They are generously sized and easily identifiable, with stainless steel wall panels. Half of the space can be closed off for cleaning while the other half remains operational. And to hustle JetBlue planes out of the gates faster—to meet the airline's vaunted 30-minute turnaround time—maintenance closets are located at each gate to speed cleaning.

Subtly Stressing the Brand

JetBlue's ubiquitous blue brand identity, always an integral part of its corporate marketing, communications, and aircraft livery, has been integrated into the design. At various points—such as at security and in the baggage-claim area and the Marketplace—passengers will face a long, glowing, blue Panelite wall, which, Hooper explains, "is a low-key brand signifier and a way of saying you have reached another destination, like waiting for a bag."

One question, of course, is whether all the systems at T5 will function properly on opening day, when JetBlue will switch all flights from its current terminal next door. JetBlue hopes to avoid the fate of British Airways, which suffered much embarrassment this year when a glitch in the baggage delivery system caused mayhem at the opening of its own Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport. So JetBlue has invited 1,000 of its frequent flyers to participate in a practice run-through on Aug. 23.

The airline will be testing everything from how computer and baggage systems work to whether passengers understand the signs. The passengers will each be given a traveler profile and mock itinerary and go through the motions of check-in and "flow" to the gates, whereupon they will turn around and play the role of arriving passengers. The big test, of course, will come when the terminal is in operation and flights are delayed during a summer thunderstorm or winter blizzard.

Endless Waiting

Planning for T5 was based on the notion that today's passengers often spend more time than ever before in a terminal and depend on entertainment and impulse purchases to while away the hours as well as available services to buy food and beverages to take on board. That's why the Rockwell-designed Markeptlace is a convergence point for arriving and departing passengers. The space is dominated by a large, egg-shaped aluminum ring suspended from the ceiling and equipped with 43 LCD monitors—for displaying information and possibly site-specific art work—and a 4-ft.-high grandstand inspired by the steps of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The design, Rockwell says, "welcomes you as a place to perch, watch, or eat."

Not all passengers, though, care about art work or "dwell time," as the jargon has it, at an airport. Business travelers, for example, won't find a dedicated business lounge at T5, which irritates Joe Brancatelli, editor of a popular business travel Web site, "I can't work in the maddening crowd, or a terminal packed with people and whining babies," he says, arguing that the lack of a lounge is shortsighted at a time when JetBlue is trying to lure corporate travelers. While he's looking forward to all the promised bells and whistles at T5—especially food delivered to the gate, if it works—Brancatelli says JetBlue should "give us or sell us the space to work privately." In response, Bryan Baldwin, a JetBlue spokesman, says there's no business lounge at T5 because the carrier is a single-class airline (although it does sell seats with more legroom), which means no separate spaces for special passengers. With such features as free wireless and gourmet restaurants, Baldwin claims, T5 "is like one big business lounge."

Along with other airlines, JetBlue is suffering the crush of high jet-fuel prices, which have jumped 69.2% over past year, according to the International Air Transport Assn. As a result, the airline has been forced to announce such revenue generating measures as charging $7 for a blanket-and-pillow set, $20 for a checked bag, and $10 to $20 for extra legroom. The airline also delayed delivery of 10 Embraer 190 aircraft and suspended near-term expansion plans beginning in September. "We currently do not plan to grow in 2009," the airline said in a statement. (In sympathy with employees, Chief Executive David Barger took a voluntary 50% pay cut, to $250,000, for the second half of 2008.) JetBlue recently announced a $7 million quarterly loss, compared with a $21 million profit a year ago.

Passengers will no doubt find T5's amenities a pleasure compared with older, less convivial terminals. Yet for all its creature comforts, business traveler and commentator Brancatelli says the priority for most travelers is to get in and out fast and be on their way. "Some people do want to shop and eat at the airport, or go to a museum," he adds, "but as a business traveler, I just really want to fly."

View a sneak peek of the new JetBlue Airways terminal, set to open October 1.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.