Airport Grab: Jet Blue Cramps T.W.A. Jewel

Some of the city’s most influential preservationists are vowing to block plans to build a huge new terminal for Jet Blue Airways at John F. Kennedy International Airport, arguing that it will destroy a gloriouspieceofaviation architecture: Eero Saarinen’s T.W.A. terminal.

But the efforts of these preservationists have infuriated some of the city’s business leaders, who see the plan for the new Jet Blue terminal as an important project that will solidify the discount airline’s presence in the city and will help modernize J.F.K. airport.

At the center of the fight is the T.W.A. terminal, a soaring, modernist monument to air travel and to 1960’s nostalgia that has remained empty for nearly two years. Jet Blue, in collaboration with the Port Authority, wants to build a $1 billion, state-of-the-art terminal just behind the old T.W.A. structure, a plan with broad support among New York business executives, who see it as a key to the city’s future as an international business center.

But the Municipal Art Society, a century-old civic group, has been waging a furious lobbying campaign against the plan. They say that the new terminal will, in effect, ground Mr. Saarinen’s architectural flight of fancy.

Although the proposed new terminal would leave the T.W.A. structure largely intact, the plan has upset preservationists because the old T.W.A. building would no longer function as a terminal. The new building would encircle the old one, obscuring the T.W.A. terminal’s view of the runways from its famous floor-to-ceiling windows-a feature that, in the view of preservationists, helps give the older terminal its aesthetic lift.

“By eliminating use of the terminal, you’re condemning the building to a slow death,” said Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society. “This is one of the really significant buildings in the country, if not in the world, and it deserves a very thoughtful examination of its future.”

The battle has intensified in recent weeks, because the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue a decision on the proposal as early as the first week of September. Both sides are aggressively making their feelings known to the F.A.A., and with the agency’s decision fast approaching, passions are running high. The T.W.A. terminal’s defenders have taken to comparing the plan to “cutting the arms off a baby,” while the plan’s proponents have been slamming the preservationists as architectural purists who are letting nostalgia stand in the way of growth and progress.

Business leaders argue that Jet Blue’s expansion will spur growth in the struggling airline industry and facilitate cheap and easy transportation in and out of the city.

“The fact that the Municipal Art Society can delay a project like this with a marginal argument about historic preservation is one of the things that hampers our economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a group of business executives. “The city’s future depends on its role as a center of international travel. What they are seeking is impractical and unreasonable.”

In many ways, this fight is really an intergenerational clash between two visions of air travel, pitting nostalgia for a more glamorous era of jet travel against the 21st-century consumer’s demand for cheap, no-frills flights.

Modern Monument

The T.W.A. terminal, which opened in the early 1960s, was a place where people went to watch planes take off and land, a monument to modernity where they sipped cocktails and contemplated the miracle of flight. It stands as an icon to the jet age, a throwback to a time when air travel embodied luxury, optimism and the newfound freedoms conferred by postwar advances in technology.

By contrast, the driving idea behind Jet Blue, which keeps prices down by stripping away luxuries, is that flying is a practical necessity of modern life and thus should be cheap and accessible. The rapid growth of Jet Blue-it began in 2000 with one plane at Kennedy and has since become the largest domestic carrier at J.F.K.-seems to suggest that people are embracing this less-than-glamorous view of air travel.

The proposal by the Port Authority and Jet Blue calls for construction of a vast new terminal that abuts the T.W.A. structure. It would have 26 gates and 1.5 million square feet-five times the size of the T.W.A. structure. The new terminal would be connected to the old one by two connector tubes that once linked the T.W.A. terminal to its gates. The old terminal would be converted to an as-yet-undetermined combination of shops, offices and conference centers. If approved by the F.A.A. in September, the new terminal will be open in 2007.

Jet Blue executives, who expect to fund around $400 million of the new proposal, maintain that a new terminal is the only way they can accommodate their future growth. They say they already have ordered a fleet of new planes and hope to be flying more than 200 flights out of J.F.K. each day by the end of the decade. Jet Blue currently flies out of another, separate terminal at Kennedy, unlike most domestic airlines, which fly out of LaGuardia Airport.

“We need a new terminal if we’re going to continue to grow in New York,” said David Neeleman, the founder and chief executive of Jet Blue. “We recognize that there’s a lot of sensitivity in New York because of the tearing down of the old Penn Station. But no one’s saying the T.W.A. terminal needs to be torn down, and we need a new facility that can handle our growing volume.”

As part of an effort to get the F.A.A. to decline the new plan, the Municipal Art Society, with the help of noted airport architects, recently developed an alternative scheme that it maintains would save the structure’s architectural sanctity. This plan calls for Jet Blue to move into the old structure and use it as a terminal. The society’s proposal calls for excavating underneath the terminal to update baggage-handling and security systems. And to accommodate Jet Blue’s growing fleet, the alternate plan would allow for the construction of a new, more modern gate system, which passengers would access through the old structure’s two standing connector tubes.

But engineers at both the Port Authority and Jet Blue maintain that the society’s alternative is impractical and unworkable. They say that there’s no way the connector tubes can accommodate Jet Blue’s flow of passengers, and add that the old terminal’s system of runways is too cramped and outmoded to handle the rapid coming and going of Jet Blue’s planes. They also reject the idea of digging under the old structure.

“You can’t dig under the T.W.A. terminal,” said Bill Dakota, the director of aviation for the Port Authority. “The water table at Kennedy is too high for that.”

In the view of Port Authority and Jet Blue executives, the new terminal represents the best way of balancing the needs of a 21st-century airport with the desire to preserve a relic of a vanished aviation era.

“No airline has expressed an interest in moving into the T.W.A. terminal as it is now,” Mr. Dakota said. “Instead of the terminal sitting empty, neglected and tired, the new plan will make it the subject of a massive effort to restore its former luster and preserve it as an architectural masterwork for the future.”