Terminal 3 at JFK International Airport is incontinent. At 52, such problems are understandable. Still, they are nonetheless embarrassing, especially for one of the main international entry points for still (arguably, hopefully) the capital of the world.
Hanging from Terminal 3’s massive flying saucer roof are two dozen diapers, the actual technical term for the no-longer white tarps, 10-by-10 or larger, affixed to the concrete ceiling by steel cables. Running out the middle of each is a clear garden hose. Why not something opaque is a mystery as baffling as the fact that this terminal, with its crumbling roof, still stands. At least a dark hose would hide the effluent passing through the cracks of time, the drippings of decades of decay and neglect, where none of it would be exposed for all the world to see.
Hello Istanbul, greetings Sao Paolo, cheerio London. Welcome to New York. Hope your 12-hour flight was O.K. Please ignore the colostomy bags hanging overhead.
At least it was still freezing outside on Sunday afternoon after I had flown up from Philadelphia. (A rare luxury, if that, but how else to get unescorted into the terminal in this age of security? It was not for expediency’s sake for sure, for New Jersey Transit is still the better route between Bucks County and Brooklyn.) Had the temperature risen above 32 degrees as predicted, the snowmelt from the previous day’s three-inches would already be leaking its way through the terminal, dripping down here and there, a little precipitation for our new guests. A little New York surprise.
This is our 21st Century Statue of Liberty.
The downside to the freezing cold is that for those of us not flying in from abroad, those aboard the puddle jumpers, the Bombadiers and Embraers that most carriers would have thought embarrassing even a decade ago but that now offer an unbeatable deal on fuel economy, the problem for us is that the peculiar constraints of JFK’s current configuration mean that we must disembark on the tarmac. Instead of a homely concourse, we are greeted by a maze of beige plastic. The ground is slick in places with ice. A woman coming as we are going is overheard telling her companion “This is really so inefficient, I’ll tell ya.” Had we boarded the wrong flight and wound up in Ketchikan?
And then, just when we finally find our way out of the maze, nose runny, hands frostbitten, the snow melting off a pipe running through the walkway starts dripping on us. Maybe they need some diapers out here, too.
“For New Yorkers I think its O.K.,” a Delta employee on our flight up from Philadelphia said when asked before departure about the Delta terminals. “For other people, I think its confusing.” When you deal with the subway everyday, you come to expect these kind of conditions. At least there are no rats.
Except for the flying kind. Mesh hangs above the entrance and pigeon spikes crown every surface because not only pigeons but also sparrows actually live in the terminal, and seem to get along better than any of the humans. On at least one occasion, two sparrows were wrestling, and one buzzed a young woman, nearly knocking her over. Who knows how much luggage has been shit on.
There is the sickly fluorescent lighting, like something out of a horror movie basement. Low ceilings everywhere, even inside the flying saucer, which once soared, until the upper deck was built to accommodate that ever-so-necessary Burger King and Stone Rose Grill, with the $16 flank-steak pizzabread. Gourmet New York cuisine at its finest.
Extending from the Kennedy-era saucer is the Never-ending Concourse, bad enough until the T.S.A. showed up a decade ago. Their screening gates mean you can no longer walk in a complete circuit around the diamond-shape promenade and mini mall (Brookstone, Virgin, Yoursmomsfavorite Coutoure, three different Duty Frees) built in 1971 to accommodate the new larger jets that had already rendered the original Terminal 3 obsolete. Now, you must double back on your search for non-Starbucks coffee, praying to make it back to the gate in time for take off.
Traveling through JFK Terminal 3 is like flying through a third world country.
Actually, it is worse. Last week, Frommer’s ranked the world’s 10 worst airport terminals, and this one received bottom honors, below Nairobi, Moscow and even Manilla’s Terminal 1, where a section of the roof actually collapsed last year and injured two people. Newark Terminal A was ranked eighth worst, LaGuardia Terminal C one spot below that.
How is it, though, that New York, home to Ellis Island and 50 million tourists, world capital of everything, wound up with not just one but three of the worst airports in the world? How is it that we have landed in aerial ignominy?
It should come as good news, then, that within the next two years, JFK Terminal 3 will be gone. If only that were not such horrible news.
“It’s such a great idea, and so unique,” said John Morris Dixon, editor of the highly influential midcentury magazine Progressive Architecture, upon hearing Delta’s announced plans a year and a half ago. He wrote lovingly of the terminal’s opening, all of the Jet Age terminal‘s openings, half a century ago. “I don’t know if there’s another circular terminal like itt66.”
Walking through Terminal 3, the only thing more omnipresent than the dreariness is the posters, banners, infographics, videos, brochures, signs and the sides of shuttle buses all trumpeting a bright future just a hundred yards away. THE NEW DELTA T4 TERMINAL Coming May 2013 they cheer in bold Helvetica. Next to these are renderings of the new, expanded terminal, with more curbside check-in space, more security points, new restaurants and lounges, extra airport gates.
The message is clear. This terminal you are now in, it is not real. It is a nightmare, but one from which you will wake in 16 months.
“New York is by far the most competitive market in the world,” said Gail Grimmet, Delta’s senior vice president in charge of New York. “There is $14 billion in revenue at stake and we’re all competing for it. Last summer, there were 80 carriers flying out of JFK, so you’re up against a lot of competition.” An inferior, geriatric facility just will not cut it anymore.
What this means for Terminal 3 is total annihilation. It will not be replaced by another shiny aviation bauble. It will simply become extra taxi space and a new apron, the term for airplane parking. This is actually a good thing for fliers, since it will mean more room for planes to maneuver at the airport and faster turnarounds at the gate. One of the nation’s slowest airport might just speed up a bit.
But to do so will be at the cost of the last operational piece of Jet Age architecture at an airport that once defined it for the entire world. “Land is so critical at JFK, you really have to evaluate it and makes sure you’re getting the best use out of it,” Delta’s Ms. Grimmett said. Terminal 3 “really is an interesting building, but structurally, it’s outlived its usefulness.”
There is Eero Saarinen’s world-renowned TWA Terminal, of course, the one building the Port Authority deigned to preserve. But even then, the old Terminal 5 is hemmed in by JetBlue’s new and very nice T5–voted one of the top 10 by Frommer’s, it turns out. Probably the finest piece of aviation architecture ever built, the old alien beauty awaits some future use, perhaps a hotel wedged between terminals new and old. A request for proposals went out last year, with Donald Trump, Yotel and Andre Balazs among those interested. The Standard Queens sounds appealing, but who would really take the hour A-Train trip out to Jamaica for a party?
Well, they used to, actually, a few years ago, when the terminal had a short-lived stint as a cultural and event space, but at the terminal’s second ever party someone left the door to the tarmac open and a few drunk revelers found themselves out on the jet way. There was no incident, but the TSA was none too pleased. JetBlue, which is still responsible for the original terminal, decided it was simply better to forego parties than to take on the risk that came with them.
This is much the reason JetBlue tore down Terminal 6, I.M. Pei’s old Sundrome, the beautiful home of the long-gone National Airlines. Like all of the old JFK terminals, it was a statement piece, home to the world’s first freestanding glass curtain wall–look, ma, no mullions! When it was demolished last year, without any sort of plans for its replacement, a piece of architectural history was lost with it, and some in the preservation community were apoplectic. Neither the Port nor JetBlue cared. They had an airport to run.
Much the same thing happened at Terminal 8, continuously in operation by American Airlines from 1960 to 2008. The marquee feature was not some intergalactic shell or technologically advanced façade but a more simple, even baroque, flourish: the world’s largest stained glass window. Stretching some 317-feet, it featured billowy abstract design by Robert Sowers. When the terminal was demolished, pieces of the window were broken up and given to American staff as key chains. An architectural salvage outlet in the Village will sell you tiny red-white-and-blue panels for as little as $100. At least the two inside murals by Brazilian artist Carybe were saved, though not for New York. Originally installed as a symbol of American’s frequent flights to Latin America, two six-ton artworks were carted off to the hub in Miami.
The situation at LaGuardia, the nation’s first true airport, is little better. Built by the mayor whose name it bears through the sweat and craftsmanship of the WPA, the old Marine Terminal is home to a mural of its own Flight, the largest created by federal artists during the Depression. It was plastered over by the Port Authority decades ago and only recently restored after the campaigning of the editor of AirCargoNews.com. It is the only first-generation terminal still in use, and even then only as administrative offices.
And there is also the old control tower, with its hourglass shape and spiral of portholes, like somewhere Captain Nemo might live. Built by Robert Moses, it was one of so many World’s Fair landmarks that remade the city in the early ‘60s. Every single jet age terminal was, JFK included.
The tower was set to be replaced since the 1980s, and so it went into a tramatic state of decline. Even then, like all of these buildings, it retained a certain beauty. Until it was demolished last year, having finally been replaced by a simple beanpole of concrete next door, a cluster of black glass observation decks at its crown.
An entire generation of revolutionary architecture gone. These were the buildings American aviation used to project their power and dominance to the world, and through which a city defined air travel for generations. That is why the airlines spent so lavishly on these terminals, hiring the nation’s finest architects. It must be said that none are in business but American, the last of the legacy carriers to file for bankruptcy, though it will not be vanishing for good, like so many of JFK’s patrons.
“Romanticize them all you will, these buildings are functionally obsolete and there is really nothing you can do with them,” said Greg Lindsay, author of Aeropolis.
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.
Cue the Sinatra, bring up the lights on a shiny, glorious Terminal 3. A young boy looks out through massive windows at the planes encircling the terminal, his mother’s hand resting on his shoulder. A captain smiles, tips his hat to him, and the full terminal comes into view, glowing warmly in the afternoon sun.
The opening to ABC’s Pan Am is of course fake, but the facsimile is meant to be as close to reality as with all these midcentury dramas. It could not be further from the truth then or now. “Our nostalgia is misplaced,” Mr. Lindsay said. “I don’t know that I would want to eat a meal on one of those Pan Am flights, and I certainly couldn’t afford one. Flying is just not the same, for better or worse.” It has gone from luxury to commodity, from moving the 1 percent to moving everybody else.
Things are not quite as bad as Frommer’s would have us believe, though. In December, the Port Authority released a request for expressions of interest to find a private partner to create a new central terminal at LaGuardia, and Port officials have told The Observer a similar one will be released some time this year for Newark’s Terminal A. 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.
“We’ve got to make sure we are investing the kind of money into the airports that is necessary,” Port Authority executive director Pat Foye said in an interview. “There are a number of challenges, but we will get there.
By then there should be a hotel at Terminal 5, if a labor dispute at the neighboring Radison does not hold it up. And The Observer has also learned that last October the Port 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—a whole other story that one high ranking City Hall official called “the real tragedy of our airports”—basically to figure out what to do to save all those jobs and billions of dollars at stake.
Our airports may be an embarrassment, but the skies seem to be clearing. At least for the next 20 years. Even then, should things go bad again, remember the sage advice of Louis CK, whose optimism every airline should replace those annoying safety videos with: You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everyone on every flight should be going OH MY GOD! You’re sitting…in a chair…in the sky!