NYC Airports Struggle to Enter 21st Century

Event: New York Infrastructure: Are New York’s Airports Obsolete?
Location: Museum of the City of New York, 07.30.08
Speakers: Charles Van Cook, PE — Senior Vice President/Senior Technical Manager, Parsons Brinckerhoff; William DeCota — Director of Aviation, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Richard Smyth — Vice President, JetBlue Airways; Jeffrey Zupan — Senior Fellow of Transportation, Regional Plan Association
Moderator: David Plavin — Consultant, Former President, Airports Council International-North America
Organizer: Museum of the City of New York; NY Building Congress; Regional Plan Association

The new JetBlue Airways Terminal 5, designed by Gensler, attempts to suit today’s travelers’ needs.

©Prakash Patel

The three most important factors that influence how travelers select an airport are accessibility, service, and convenience, according to studies cited by panelists in the airline industry. Contrary to popular belief, ticket prices come in fourth. With a projected 50% increase in travel by 2025, NYC airports (John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International) are not obsolete — they are paying the price for being among the first in the country. Now that Stewart International Airport has been added as the fourth airport in the line-up, those in the industry are faced with bringing the existing airports up to speed and creating a draw for city dwellers to travel 55 miles north to New Windsor, NY.

NYC airports carry some of the highest demands for passengers and cargo internationally, yet they have comparatively tiny airfields, stated William DeCota, director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). The congestion that this creates has caused the airports to face a high percentage of delays. Also, post-9/11 security needs have impacted travelers’ time spent in the airports prior to plane boarding, resulting in longer wait times all around, added Charles Van Cook, PE, senior vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Richard Smyth, vice president of JetBlue Airways, believes problems stem from outdated 1960s-era technology.

Set to open next month, the new JetBlue Airways Terminal 5 at JFK, designed by Gensler, is an example of PANYNJ’s efforts to update the airport system. Since travelers are increasingly printing their passes at home, 20 security checkpoints greet passengers at the entrance as the first step in the process. Check-in counters secondarily flank the sides. Concession stands are past the security gates, encouraging travelers to purchase food for the plane while they wait to board. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal is completely independent but ties back to the new terminal for public access. The 72-acre site allows for 26 dual gates with close proximity to the airfields, and with access to nearby roadways, AirTran, and parking, the terminal will handle 30% of JFK’s capacity, according to Smyth.

While airport improvements — satellite communication, precision-guidance equipment, e-tickets and e-passports, and even biometric sensors — will ease some of the bottlenecking in the three NYC-area sites as well, PANYNJ is hoping that Stewart will be the ultimate answer to overcrowding. However, congestion on Route 87 and existing train lines make the airport inconvenient. Studies such as the West of Hudson Regional Transit Access Study organized by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), for example, conclude that high-speed trains, such as those refined in Europe and Asia, are the answer. If the MTA’s Long Range Planning Working Group and the Systems Planning/Alternatives Analysis study, an interagency effort between the MTA and PANYNJ, can find ways to fund the system and locate it without tearing down neighborhoods in the process (one audience member suggested above the meridian on Route 87), then airport delays may be a thing of the past in NYC.