How to Remake the Most Famous Airport in the World
New York’s Idlewild Airport opened in the summer of 1948 on a former golf resort. This outpost at the southeastern edge of New York City became an aviation marvel in the late 1950s as several big airlines opened terminals with cutting-edge technology aimed at enhancing the passenger experience. “Its every feature bespeaks speed and function,” Life magazine wrote in a 1961 photo essay.
In 1963, Idlewild was renamed after the U.S. president slain just weeks before in Dallas. John F. Kennedy International Airport has come a long way since—becoming one of the most recognizable airline destinations in the world. More recently, though, it’s better known for a long slide into decrepitude as infrastructure investment failed to keep pace with growth.
New York officials are hoping to change that, announcing a $10 billion program last week to modernize JFK, America’s largest international gateway airport, which sits 15 miles east of Manhattan. JFK has seen steady growth, from 32.3 million passengers in 2000 to about 54 million today. The airport is projected to hit 100 million by 2050, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“You look at airports all across the globe, and one is better than the next,” Cuomo said last week, unveiling his proposal for the revamped, “world-class” JFK. “They are all way ahead of where we are.”
As with the current $8 billion project to rebuild the smaller, frayed LaGuardia Airport to its north—an effort that will connect all terminals with that airport’s 72 gates—the JFK design calls for making the revamped facility more cohesive and unified, two words Cuomo used to describe the plans. In 2017, if a traveler jets into JFK from Dubai and needs to connect, she may well confront a frantic, confusing scramble: Where’s the other terminal—and the train? Is it running on schedule? Can I walk/jog? Is there a shuttle bus? To be fair, one can encounter similar problems at other U.S. airports, such as JFK’s West Coast sister, Los Angeles International. But at JFK, itself a small city in size and population, the challenge can be much more daunting.
JFK’s current mishmash of roadways would be streamlined into a ring spanning the six terminals, with parking centralized at the interior. Officials also are planning to expand the adjacent, habitually clogged Van Wyck Expressway to allow for easier airport access and are mulling a “one-seat” mass transit ride directly to JFK, an amenity almost every modern airport now offers. Right now, you have to switch from either the subway or the Long Island Railroad to the Airtrain that serves the terminals.
Much of JFK also retains what can charitably be called a dated look—a decided disadvantage when compared with gleaming air hubs in such places as Beijing, Seoul, Singapore, and Munich.
“We are the airport that, nostalgically, people know from around the world,” said Mercedes Altman, executive director of the JFK Chamber of Commerce, the only airport chamber in America. “We want to be able to provide that customer experience that is available in other [global] airports. We want to be able to have that polish and sheen and sleek look that an airport of that stature requires.”
Cuomo said he would like to fund as much as $7 billion of the estimated cost from private sources, just as much of LaGuardia’s overhaul is being overseen by a public-private partnership. That group has a lease to operate LaGuardia’s 35-gate central terminal until 2050; Delta Air Lines Inc. gained a similar lease for its 37 LaGuardia gates before agreeing to spend heavily to revamp terminals C and D.
A spokeswoman for Vantage Airport Group, the Vancouver-based airport operator involved with LaGuardia’s overhaul, said “we look forward to finding out more about how the Port Authority, governor’s office, and airlines intend to move forward with these ambitious projects.”
Chief among its faults, JFK delivers wildly disparate customer experiences depending on which terminal you happen to be in. Delta and JetBlue Airways Corp. have invested heavily to remake Terminals 4 and 5, respectively. Traverse the other terminals, however, and a trip back in time to the bad old days can be had. In a Cuomo news release, the chief executives of both carriers offered support for the plan, as did the chief executive of American Airlines Group Inc.
This new-vs.-old terminal hodgepodge is a relic of the days when airlines designed and built their own facilities, including Eero Saarinen’s futuristic TWA Flight Center at the heart of JFK, which is being resurrected as a hotel, slated to open next year.
One big question that looms over the governor’s visions: Would the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which oversees the area’s airports, fund a major JFK project just as it’s reconstructing LaGuardia? The region has no shortage of critical infrastructure needs, and the Port Authority’s capital budget is already heavily tilted toward aviation. There’s another factor that could militate against a JFK revamp: Unlike LaGuardia, which has been notorious for its degradation, the massive airport on the other side of Queens has gotten various upgrades in recent years and, arguably, works well enough for the time being.
“Yes, the big question is, is this real or just a PR stunt to beat out” whatever type of infrastructure-spending plan the Trump administration may unveil, said Joe Sitt, chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance, a New York infrastructure advocacy group.
For several years, President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has served as an alliance board member. Last week, Kushner notified the group that he was resigning to avoid any conflicts of interest, Sitt said.
“I’m in the wait-and-see camp,” Sitt said. “I want to see something real.”