Terminal Condition: How New York’s Airports Crashed and Burned—Can They Soar Again?

8d85824f Terminal Condition: How New Yorks Airports Crashed and Burned—Can They Soar Again?

Terminal 5 successfully combines the old (TWA) and the new (JetBlue) behind it. (Architizer)

Architecture might be the least of New York’s problems, though. Our airports serve more than 100 million people a year. They rank as the three worst in the country for delays—Newark, JFK, then LaGuardia. Average wait times are more than twice that of other U.S. airports, where people are stuck for 10 or 15 minutes. Here, 20 minutes and up is the norm, with hours-long delays all too common.

And it is not just New Yorkers suffering. There is a ripple effect: 60 percent of delays nationwide originate with problems at one of our three airports. A 2009 cover story in Wired declared that the only way to save national aviation was to redesign the skies over Gotham.

And it’s getting worse. Last year, the mayor bragged about 50 million tourists visiting the city, a record attendance achieved in the doldrums of a down economy. Globalization has not only meant more business travelers and more demands for intercontinental flights, it has also meant a growing global middle class in places like China and Brazil. They are all of them bound for Times Square, the High Line, the Statue of Liberty.

Blame does not lie solely with the airports, their operators or the airlines. History is also to blame. These are some of the worst airports in the world because they were once some of the best. Parts of LaGuardia are no more advanced than they were in the Depression. JFK, the first jet age airport, was built piecemeal by self-possessed airlines and quickly became obsolete when bigger jets became the norm.

The lack of any central authority has left places like Terminal 3 to languish because neither the Port nor the airlines occupying them wants to take full responsibility for them, not to mention find the funds. “People came to JFK to marvel at the buildings but also to study what not to do,” said architecture critic Alastair Gordon, who wrote Naked Airport, a 320-page cultural treatise on Terminal 5.

Even the relatively young Newark is a mess. Terminal A is decades younger than its siblings across the river and still it is obsolete. This is owing to the source of so many of the industry’s problems, 9/11. Most of the shopping, eating and other facilities like elite lounges are located at the central terminal building, as is security. This means once through the magnetometer, there is little to do but sit at the gate.

Nowhere else but at the airport does a building have such a short lifespan, if terminals can even rightly be called buildings. Really, they are more like giant machines, people movers constantly in need of upgrading.

“Where else but New York could you have one of the best terminals in the world and also one of the worst?” said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, referring to JetBlue’s Terminal 5 and Delta’s Terminal 3.

Last January, the RPA issued a report, Upgrading to World Class, that warned if the Port Authority and the mayors and governors surrounding it do not figure out a way to expand airport capacity, it could cost the region 125,000 jobs, $6 billion in wages and $16 billion in sales a year by 2030. The good news is there is time. The bad news is it takes time, and a substantial amount of money, to achieve these proposals.

The most frequent complaint heard from carriers to air traffic controllers is that Congress must act. It must impliment the NextGen air traffic control system, a GPS-driven system in the works since the 1980s and still not due for full implementation until 2025. In the meantime, most cellphones now come equipped with the technology, and it will probably be implanted into our brains by the time NextGen is realized. This is the same Congress that has refused to fully reauthorize the FAA since 2007, passing 22 short-term extensions instead.

There are also political potholes at home. Chris Ward, the former head of the Port Authority, fought last year to raise the Hudson River tolls by $4 in part to generate $2 billion, which would be split for new terminals at Newark and LaGuardia. The move was defeated by both governors. And there is also the matter of our vaunted real estate. Without the authoritarianism and funds of an Asian giant, there is simply no way to bulldoze a new airport into New York. Nor do we have the room of Denver or Atlanta for such a project, where the facilities are three times as large as all three of our airports combined.


  1. Seth Miller says:

    Not that it really matters or changes the fact that the terminal is a dump, but those regional jets you mention are actually horribly inefficient when it comes to fuel consumption. Their only value to the airlines is that the staffing costs are so low because the crew is paid on a much lower scale.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely nothing about the real problem with flying into New York, which is that all the airports are inconvenient to and/or expensively distant from the city.

    Build a one-seat-ride express train to every airport in the NY region connecting to Midtown and Lower Manhattan — it’s something almost every world class city BUT New York has.

  3. J.C. Seehusen says:

    Did anyone else think that this article didn’t deserve its headline, let alone publication? It does little to explain how New York’s airports “crashed and burned,” nor does it try very hard to answer the question of whether the airports can “soar again.”

    The first section, describing the disrepair of JFK’s terminal 3, would have been useful if it were bringing attention to a problem that both public officials and Delta were stubbornly refusing to address. But, as the author notes belatedly, Delta plans to destroy the terminal and replace it with a new one. So wait, then, is the new terminal not arriving quickly enough?

    Apparently not, as in the next section, the author implies that he actually has a soft spot for the appearance of terminal 3, and will lament its destruction. (“An entire generation of revolutionary architecture gone.”) So wait, then, is the author suggesting that terminal 3 should be repaired, rather than destroyed?

    That’s anyone’s guess, as we progress into the third section, a mishmash of fact and opinion that suffers from a severe lack of focus, owing to the squishy nature of the term “worst.” What does it mean that Newark is “a mess” and is “obsolete”? No explanation is given.

    Then, bizarrely, the author indicates that “political potholes at home” are preventing the construction of new terminals at Newark and LaGuardia, but barely a few paragraphs later, admits that there are in fact plans to replace those very two terminals. “Along with Delta’s plans at JFK, three of the worst terminals in the world will be banished from the city in a matter of years.”

    Exactly. So I ask: what is the point of this article?

    But wait! The author notes that the Port Authority recently “began a sweeping look at its airports, like that of the RPA’s, to figure exactly what to do with them, how to expand the runways, address the infrastructure, improve air freight.” Now THAT’s news – I’d like to hear how these three new terminals will fit into the grand scheme of how New York’s airports will be run. Details!

    Sorry. That’s a “whole other story.”

    In sum, I usually don’t bother to comment on subpar news articles, but this story was one of the most confusing and frustrating pieces I’ve ever read.