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

Terminal 3 at JFK International Airport is incontinent. At 52, such problems are understandable. Still, they are nonetheless embarrassing, especially

Bright skies: The Pan Am Terminal a year after opening, 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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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?

Inside the Worst Terminal in the World >>

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?

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