Terminal Condition: How New York’s 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 Terminal A is decades younger than its siblings across the river and still it is obsolete.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.

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