The city is not exactly known for its state-of-the-art airports. That should change by 2030.
Complaining about the sorry state of New York City’s airports has become a national pastime.
For decades, travelers have exchanged tales of indignities: rats in the terminals, pigeon droppings, leaky ceilings, broken escalators, temporary toilets. Even the top official who oversees the airports has unpleasant memories of using them.
“I vividly remember the state that La Guardia was in, with tarps hanging down to catch leaks,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates La Guardia and John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, as well as Newark Liberty International in New Jersey. “Certainly, La Guardia, parts of Newark and parts of J.F.K. were just disgraces.”
Now, after years of neglect and underinvestment, the Port Authority is revamping all three of its major airports at a cost of more than $25 billion. If all goes according to plan, the New York metropolitan area could have three of the most modern airports in the country by 2030.
Some travelers have already started noticing the changes. Jeff Mauro, a cookbook author and television personality from Chicago, recalled the old La Guardia this spring as he sat inside one of its new terminals.
“It was like a bus station, let’s not lie,” Mr. Mauro said. “I don’t long for the water-bottle leak collection system they had in baggage claim.”
Despite a long line to clear security, Mr. Mauro said he was impressed with the new terminal. “It’s the first time I’ve been in a domestic airport that reminded me of an Asian-style airport.”
From Midcentury marvels to modern-day stress tests
There was a time when New York City’s airports were considered modern marvels.
In the 1940s, New Yorkers would visit the observation deck at La Guardia Airport just to watch planes take off and land, including the occasional Clipper, a “flying boat” operated by Pan American Airways. Seaplane passengers would arrive at Marine Air Terminal, a landmark of Art Deco architecture still in use today.
La Guardia was named for Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor who was so annoyed at having to land in New Jersey that he demanded the city develop an airport of its own. Shortly before Mr. La Guardia died, the city turned operational control over to the Port Authority through a lease that has been extended over the decades.
La Guardia became so popular that the Port Authority had to shift all international and coast-to-coast flights across Queens to New York International Airport, which was known as Idlewild until it was renamed for President Kennedy in 1963.
New terminals were added to La Guardia to accommodate the growing demand for travel to and from the city. But over the last 25 years, the Port Authority has allowed them to deteriorate, and La Guardia has developed a reputation for dysfunction. Most famously, in 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden compared landing at La Guardia to arriving in “some third-world country.”
Mitchell L. Moss, a professor at New York University, said the Port Authority’s neglect can be traced back decades, but the fate of the airports was cast on Sept. 11, when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and killed the agency’s executive director, Neil D. Levin.
The Port Authority, jointly controlled by the governors of New York and New Jersey, owned and operated the World Trade Center and became “consumed with rebuilding downtown,” Mr. Moss said. “They were seriously wounded organizationally, and it took them a decade to resolve that.”
Thomas K. Wright, the chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, a research group focused on infrastructure in and around the city, said “a lot of public space was terrible” in the 1970s and 1980s, including the subways and Times Square. Then, he said, “we started to improve the public realm dramatically, and suddenly the airports were an outlier and were in much worse conditions.”
In the early 2000s, the long, costly campaign to rebuild the World Trade Center and replace the transit hub beneath it underscored the hazards of the Port Authority’s owning such a broad array of assets. Besides running the region’s three major airports, the agency operates its seaports, a commuter rail line and several bridges and tunnels that connect New York City and New Jersey.
Before the pandemic, the Port Authority took in more than $5 billion annually. How it spent that money was a puzzle of priorities, and in some years, especially in the decade after Sept. 11, airports took a back seat. In 2011 and 2012, the agency invested $4.8 billion on reconstructing the World Trade Center; it spent less than $600 million on its airports.
The disproportionate funding coincided with waning enthusiasm for modern air travel, an experience that, by the end of the 20th century, had turned into more of an irksome chore than a luxurious jaunt. The glamour of catching a Pan Am flight from a modern, spacious airport like Kennedy International had been reduced to nostalgia.
In the late 1950s, the airport known as Idlewild (before it became J.F.K.) was the busiest hub of international air travel in the world. Its stylish terminals served as portals to foreign lands, including the futuristic TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen. Its swooping roofline and mod interior symbolized the excitement of the jet age.
But Kennedy eventually suffered from a lack of reinvestment. Maintenance of the terminals was largely left to the airlines and other companies that leased and operated them. As landlord, the Port Authority devoted its resources to security and maintaining the runways and roadways. Passenger experiences at Kennedy varied widely. Some airlines, like JetBlue, built inviting terminals and filled them with popular restaurants, cozy lounges and even a roof deck. Others provided the barest of comforts and minimal service.
The substandard conditions at Kennedy were magnified by disruptive weather. In the aftermath of a snowstorm in 2018, a pipe burst in the ceiling of Terminal 4, flooding the arrivals section, which was jammed with stranded travelers and baggage. Used by more than a dozen foreign carriers, including China Southern, Emirates and El Al, the terminal had to stop accepting inbound flights until the mess could be cleaned up.
Terminal 4, which opened in 2001, is far from Kennedy’s oldest. Terminal 2 is 60 years old and so outdated that Delta Air Lines simply abandoned it in 2020. It is slated for demolition as part of the plan to build a much larger Terminal 1 over the next decade.
The Kennedy overhaul was first announced by Andrew M. Cuomo, then New York’s governor, almost four years ago, but the plan was set back by the steep loss of revenue the Port Authority suffered during the pandemic.
“You know, J.F.K. and La Guardia, it’s amazing when you think about it, how long these situations have been allowed to go on,” Mr. Cuomo said in 2018. “It’s not like this happened overnight, that J.F.K. was outdated or La Guardia was outdated. J.F.K. has been outdated all of my life.”
As for Newark Liberty International, it never had any real cachet.
The oldest of the three major airports serving metropolitan New York, it opened in 1928 and was, for a time, the busiest commercial airport in the world. It officially became Newark International in 1970 but was underused until the 1980s, when People Express, a discount airline, started using it. After People Express merged with Continental Airlines in 1987, Newark’s Terminal C became a hub for the carrier now known as United Airlines. It is the newest of Newark’s three terminals.
Terminals A and B, built in the early 1970s, have not received as much attention. For several months, portable toilets have lined a concourse in Terminal A and some travelers have had to board buses after clearing security to reach their gates.
A 2018 Port Authority briefing document on the plan for a new Terminal A ticked off a list of current deficiencies, including “unacceptable congestion at the curbside check-in, long lines at the lobby check-in and security checkpoints,” as well as “inconvenient and an insufficient number of concessions and bathrooms, inconvenient access to elevators, and insufficient claim device capacity.”
The plan to make New York airports ‘world class’
The Port Authority intended to continue improving the airports piece by piece, with no master plans, until Joe Biden threw that shade at La Guardia eight years ago. The barb hit a sensitive target: Mr. Cuomo, a Queens native.
Less than 18 months after Mr. Biden’s critique, Mr. Cuomo announced plans to turn La Guardia into a “world class” airport.
“La Guardia is slow, it is dated, it is a terrible front-door entranceway to New York,” Mr. Cuomo told a group of the city’s business leaders.
Soon Mr. Cuomo was calling for Kennedy to be transformed into a “unified” and “world class” facility, too.
“Biden humiliated Andrew, which is very hard to do,” said Mr. Moss, the N.Y.U. professor. “He got Andrew mobilized.”
Mr. Cuomo made improving the airports a top priority. For La Guardia, the Port Authority entered into a partnership with a consortium of companies that would build and operate its new Terminal B. (Shortly after it opened last year, that terminal won UNESCO’s 2021 Prix Versailles for best new airport building in the world.)
Mr. Cuomo also persuaded Delta Air Lines to spend as much as $4 billion on a new Terminal C. Together, those terminals would replace La Guardia’s three main terminals.
The trick was to do all that construction without disrupting the operations of one of the nation’s busiest airports. There were some failures early on, when traffic on the adjacent Grand Central Parkway got so tied up that travelers abandoned cabs on the highway and dragged their luggage the rest of the way to the airport.
The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 briefly interrupted construction, but a sharp drop in the number of passengers and flights allowed the work to accelerate, airport officials said. The Delta terminal, which opened in June with some components unfinished, will be completed 18 months ahead of schedule, said Ryan Marzullo, a Delta executive who is overseeing its design and construction.
The airy, art-filled terminals stand closer to the parkway than the dingy, old ones they replaced. They are connected to glass-walled concourses where travelers can sit comfortably and order food while charging their phones.
The old Central Terminal Building has been largely demolished, and soon terminals C and D, with their dark floors and low ceilings, will be torn down too. Then, the old La Guardia will exist mostly in memories — and nightmares.
New lounges and terminals open, offering a glimpse into the future
At Kennedy, the work is just beginning.
Plans are underway for one giant, 2.4-million-square-foot terminal to replace three old ones. Kennedy’s new $9.5 billion Terminal 1 will be as big as the new La Guardia terminals combined. Construction, expected to begin this summer, follows the redevelopment of the TWA Flight Center into the TWA Hotel, with its sunken lobby lounge preserved and a rooftop pool deck that offers views of the runways.
Other projects at Kennedy include the expansions of Terminals 7 and 4 and a new Terminal 6 that will connect to JetBlue’s Terminal 5. In all, the plan to transform Kennedy is estimated to cost about $18 billion.
Newark Liberty will be the next airport to open a new terminal, scheduled for this summer. Its new Terminal A, at one million square feet, will have concourses with floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the runways and of the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
A 2,700-space parking garage, consolidating Newark’s car-rental businesses, has been added. Eventually, its AirTrain will be replaced, at an estimated cost of about $2 billion, and plans are also underway to remake Terminal B.
Terminal C, the least outdated, has benefited from United’s contracting with OTG, the company that operates the food services and other concessions there. About 15 years ago, OTG installed 6,000 iPads so that harried travelers could place orders quickly, said Rick Blatstein, the company’s chief executive.
Now, OTG is rolling out an app-based ordering system at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia that will give travelers more flexibility on when and from where they can order food. By year’s end, someone making a connecting flight should be able to place an order from one plane and pick it up on the dash to the next one.
“If you land and you want to get something from Starbucks delivered to your gate, you’ll be able to do that,” Mr. Blatstein said.
Mr. Cotton of the Port Authority said the current building spree at the airports — $25 billion over about 10 years — is unprecedented. The agency, he said, “has never seen a period of time in which the scale of construction has been equivalent to what’s going on now.”
Still, he acknowledged that all of these improvements will not do much to solve the region’s long-running problem of flight delays. The three airports that serve the city and share the airspace around it perennially rank among the most-delayed in the country.
“I do tell people that if they’re forced to spend time at one of the new terminals, they will certainly have a much more pleasant experience.”