Special Reports

How the Port Authority has turned its airports into world-class facilities

A Q&A with Rick Cotton on the massive $30 billion overhaul.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton has been leading renovations and rebuilds at three major airports.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton has been leading renovations and rebuilds at three major airports. Brian Caraveo/Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Former NBC Universal executive Rick Cotton has been at the helm of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey since 2017, leading a turnaround of major airports that passengers had rated among the worst in the United States. Cotton is currently overseeing the $30 billion overhaul of its three international airports, which includes the ground-up construction of several new terminals, the expansion of airport runways and warehouse space, and revamping of roadways surrounding airport entrances. City & State spoke with Cotton recently about terminal renovations, the timelines for the remaining construction and the use of barges to bring in materials. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the latest on overhauling the New York City region’s three major airports?

The big picture with respect to LaGuardia, it’s an $8 billion reconstruction project where we’ve torn down every single passenger facility other than the landmarked Terminal A and built anew. And so brand new Terminal B, brand new Terminal C, brand new roadway network, really brand new, totally rebuilt taxiway system. The terminals are built 600 feet closer to the Grand Central Parkway than the older LaGuardia buildings were. All that land area allows us to have a dramatically longer taxiway serving Terminal B and (Terminal) C. We get a much more efficient use of the taxiways, significant reduction in gate delays. The reason for that, there’s always two ways for an aircraft to access a gate. You shouldn’t hear a pilot say you can’t get to your gates because there’s an aircraft in our alleyway. We have brand new world-class passenger facilities.

It’s a new airport. It’s why we came up with the phrase, “It’s a whole new LaGuardia.” It’s substantially complete, and the one additional concourse that remains to (be completed) is Concourse C. But from a passenger’s point of view, it’s substantially complete. 

It has won two “Best New Airports in the World” awards – one was from UNESCO and the other from the rating agency Skytrax. Last year, they also gave it a “Best New Terminal” award and awarded Terminal B a five-star rating. I might also say there are only three airports in North America whose facilities have a five-star rating, and the first Port Authority airport rated five stars was Terminal B. And Terminal A in Newark also received a five-star rating. So now, somewhat astonishingly, only three airports in North America have facilities with five-star ratings.

And finally, I can’t resist saying: Two weeks ago one of the most respected passenger surveys actually rated LaGuardia, based on passenger ratings, “best in class.”

Yes, we’re very proud. We think ratings by experts put airport redevelopment and Terminal A in Newark at the forefront of architectural critics and airport readers, but also now with the latest passenger survey putting LaGuardia top in class, it’s from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Is the JFK redevelopment on track to finish by 2028?

The public and private investment that we’re driving at JFK is a $19 billion investment and to take the components of that: American Airlines’ Terminal 8 $400 million expansion and upgrade completed about a year ago. Delta and Terminal 4 is a $1.5 billion expansion with significant upgrading completed six months ago. In terms of ongoing construction, the largest bulk are two brand new very large international terminals, Terminal 1 on the south end, which is going to cover the existing footprint of Terminal 1 and Terminal 2, now demolished, and Terminal 3, which in the past was used for parking airplanes. New Terminal 1 will be 2.5 million square feet, the largest terminal at Kennedy and cover the footprint of the old Terminal 1, Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 at the southern end of the airport. That’s a $7 billion construction project.

On the northern end of the airport, Terminal 6, a brand new international terminal adjacent to the current JetBlue terminal, will extend over the footprint of the old Terminal 6, now demolished, and Terminal 7, which we’ll demolish. The new Terminal 6 will spread over both of those, that’s a $4.5 billion construction project. And then the Port Authority has a $4 billion construction project to rebuild the entire roadway network, add garages and new electrical substations. So that’s the totality of the $19 billion investment at Kennedy.

It’s all proceeding very well. The two projects are finished. Terminal(s) 4, 6 and 1 are in full swing. They both target mid-2026 for the first phase to finish. They both have second phases, so the full completion date is 2028.

What drove the decision for a barging was to minimize truck traffic from an emissions point of view and traffic in the community point of view. We believe between the two of those, they will eliminate 300,000 truck trips off airport. The barging will bring in by water all of the new construction materials for the various projects going on in the airport and will also take construction waste and enable that to depart the airport by barge as well. It’s a very important operation that’s fully set up, which opened six months ago. And it’s serving all three major construction projects.

How would you describe the economic impact? 

The volumes at the airport in terms of 2023 and the first two months of 2024 are at absolutely record levels in the entire history of these airports. They are across the board domestic. Domestic is way above pre-COVID levels. Trans-Atlantic is now recovering essentially to its pre-COVID levels. Trans-Pacific is still down. But the big picture is that the volume of air travel is extraordinarily high, and higher than our airports have ever seen before.

If I give you a big picture of how we calculate this – 70,000 workers are employed at the airports. That’s the airlines, terminal operators, multiple employers, but all across the three airports there are 70,000 workers that directly work there. We’ve tried to make an estimate in terms of economic activity driven by the airports as a big picture.

Will there be a new LaGuardia AirTrain in our lifetime?

At the moment, we’re focused on the two bus routes. We’ll utilize both transit signal priorities in terms of getting through intersections and using exclusive bus lanes. The Q70 will be targeted on creating an exclusive bus lane on the shoulder of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on a critical part of that journey. And the new express bus route from Astoria-Ditmars to all three terminals will use exclusive bus lanes to the extent possible. We think bus lines with the improvements will provide important mass transit access. 

This is a historic moment in the transformation of these three airports. They’re a very important contribution to the economy, to attracting visitors and to creating a world-class quality infrastructure.

We do our airport redevelopment with public-private partnerships. When I quote these investment numbers, ballpark 75% of these dollars is private financing. So we really get four to five times leverage of every dollar of Port Authority capital, we incentivize $3-$4 of private capital for every dollar of Port Authority capital, which allows us to do these renovations. Private capital pays for terminal construction costs. Port Authority capital pays for the infrastructure, roadways, garages and electric substations.