Special Reports

An unthinkable turnaround has happened at New York City’s airports

The Port Authority has poured billions into renovating and rebuilding three key gateways into the city.

LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B is one of two U.S. terminals to receive a five-star rating from a prominent airport evaluator.

LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B is one of two U.S. terminals to receive a five-star rating from a prominent airport evaluator. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

There was a time not too long ago that New York’s airports were considered a drag on economic growth of the most populous corner of the country.

All three of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s hubs were consistently ranked among the nation’s worst, thanks to airport layouts that were challenging to navigate and congested runways that led to interminable delays and frequent cancellations. Terminals located on the outskirts of the city were difficult to get to via public transit and costly when hailing a cab or Uber thanks to perpetually clogged parkways surrounding each airport. Once inside, security lines were lengthy and waiting areas were cramped and unpleasant. When it rained, brown water leaked into LaGuardia’s terminals so often that it became a meme.

Sometimes it seemed as if LaGuardia Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport were in an ignominious race to the bottom.

“Going back to the last decade or two, Port Authority airports in particular finished in the absolute low end of every passenger survey of travelers in North America,” Rick Cotton, the Port Authority’s executive director, said in a recent interview. “LaGuardia was in terrible shape.”

The dilapidated state of the airports hampered business growth in New York, experts said, while hindering the national economy as well.

“Airports are so vital to the region’s economy, and the cost of not renovating them is their deterioration into unusable disrepair,” said Rachel Weinberger, chair of transportation at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit research organization. “At some point you can’t serve that any more if you’re so deteriorated and you don’t have good ground access connections.”

Indeed, a reliable system of air travel is a critical component of a thriving global city. In New York, key sectors such as finance, the life sciences, higher education, media and, of course, tourism rely on well-functioning airports, even in today’s post-pandemic age of Zoom meetings and hybrid work.

“This crucial link between air travel and economic prosperity is threatened by a lack of adequate capacity in the region’s aviation system, including air space, airports and landside connections,” the RPA argued in a 2011 report on the dire need to improve the New York City region’s three major airports. “This is manifested in flight delays that greatly exceed those of every other major airport in the United States. These delays cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost wages and business income. In the future, without additional capacity the impacts will be far more severe.”

At LaGuardia, the shoddy terminals were one of the few sources of frustration that Joe Biden and Donald Trump shared. (Both compared the airport to a “Third World country.”) But Biden’s remarks in 2014 may have sparked a turnaround. Later that year, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo invited Biden to a press conference where the two politicians vowed to revamp New York’s airports.

A decade and billions of dollars later, the transformation has been almost unthinkable. The gleaming new terminals have won accolades and shot up the rankings, passengers are reporting greater levels of satisfaction in independent surveys and, following a dip during the coronavirus pandemic, the three airports collectively hit a new record for total passengers last year.

“It’s actually an extraordinary moment in Port Authority history,” Cotton said. “We are driving more than $30 billion in new investment in our new major airports. That’s never happened before.”

In a once-in-a-generation investment to turn its dilapidated terminals into modernized gateways to New York City, the Port Authority is putting $19 billion toward overhauling its largest international airport, JFK, while ferrying construction materials and debris from the airport’s 5,000-acre campus through Jamaica Bay to limit highway congestion. The Port Authority demolished Terminal 3, partnered with Delta to expand Terminal 4, joined American Airlines to renovate Terminal 8, and razed Terminal 2. More recently, JFK’s Terminal 6 was redeveloped at a cost of $4.2 billion in order to connect it with Terminal 5, and contractors broke ground to start construction on a new 2.5-million-square-foot Terminal 1, with $9.5 billion in private financing. A rebuilding of the airport’s roadway network with new garages and electrical substations is also happening. JFK’s full transformation should be complete by the end of the decade.

Newark Airport received a similarly complex makeover. The Port Authority began construction on a new Terminal A before unveiling the new 1-million-square-foot, $2.7 billion terminal two years ago. Next up is a redesign and redevelopment of Terminal B and replacing its aging AirTrain with a cable car system. In addition, the Port Authority approved a pedestrian plaza and bridge connecting Elizabeth and Newark residents to the AirTrain and New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor line.

With the added capacity at the expanded and more efficient Terminal A, Newark saw passenger levels hit a record 49.1 million last year, a 6% increase from its previous peak in 2019. Similarly, LaGuardia’s increased capacity at Terminal B and Terminal C facilitated a 4% increase in total passengers from 2019 to 2023.

LaGuardia has had perhaps the most dramatic facelift of the three airports. The Port Authority’s nine-year, $8 billion rebuild of Terminals B and C and its surrounding roadways has earned plaudits for a customer-centric approach that treats travelers as “guests,” for replacing dark and cramped spaces with better lighting, and even for becoming a destination for public art displays. A New York Times headline described it as a transition from “disgraceful” to “breathtaking.” New York magazine declared Terminal B was “no longer a hellscape.” And JFK, while not yet fully redeveloped, was recently rated the most luxurious airport in the U.S.

The total overhaul has boosted New York’s economic activity by billions of dollars, despite ongoing construction and a pandemic that temporarily grounded air travel and even put further airport investments in doubt.

Overall, the Port Authority welcomed a record 144 million visitors through its airports last year, which was 3% above travel volumes in 2019, the last full year before the coronavirus pandemic slowed air traffic to a crawl. In addition, December 2023 set a record for air travel in the region with 12 million passengers, about 70,000 more than the same time four years ago.

It’s difficult to assess the overall economic benefit of its airport improvements, but the Port Authority estimates that its investments create close to half a million jobs and a total value of about $90 billion in economic activity. “We think there are almost 450,000 jobs in terms of the reach driven by the airports,” Cotton said. “What I mean by that, to the extent that there are jobs preparing the food, related to shops at the airport or related to warehouses, cargo relations, there are lots of jobs driven by economic activity.”

Some projections may be on the conservative side. At Newark Airport, for example, the new Terminal A has seen a level of travel 33% to 40% higher than initially predicted, Port Authority officials said.

“We really believe airports are gateways that have a dramatic impact on travelers in the region, who want to visit the region,” Cotton said. “Obviously tourism is a huge driver of economic activity in the region and these new airports are accelerating the return of tourists. They become part of the destination and part of the journey.”

Airports are so vital to the region’s economy, and the cost of not renovating them is their deterioration into unusable disrepair.
Rachel Weinberger, Regional Plan Association transportation chair

On the local level, however, community leaders and elected officials have raised concerns about where exactly all those billions of dollars are flowing. Some Queens politicians are clamoring for more data surrounding the JFK redevelopment project in particular, including the rate of hiring of people from Southeast Queens and contracting with minority- and women-owned business enterprises, or MWBEs.

At a New York City Council oversight hearing on April 3, lawmakers considered a bill that would require the Port Authority to regularly report metrics on the JFK redevelopment project to the city, which owns JFK and LaGuardia airports. The Port Authority, which runs the airports for the city, did not send a representative to the hearing.

“JFK is a major economic engine for the region that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates tens of billions in annual sales and wages,” New York City Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in her remarks at the hearing. “However, for years, the communities adjacent to the airport, primarily Black and brown environmental justice committees, have endured the pollution, noise and traffic that JFK has produced.”

Brooks-Powers, who worked on MWBE compliance and community outreach on JFK’s redevelopment program before winning elected office, argued that the airport, particularly Terminal 6, should be doing more to increase the participation of MWBEs.

“It’s not really reflective of diversity within diversity that they committed to,” Brooks-Powers told City & State in an interview prior to the hearing. “When you look at participation of African American contractors, it’s still pretty low. At Terminal 6, participation was about 5% and Port Authority was only about 6% also. We wanted to see more local participation coming out of targeted ZIP codes.”

Other local officials offered a more positive assessment. Queens Borough President Donovan Richards noted that for LaGuardia, close to $800 million in contracts were awarded to Queens businesses and over $2 billion went to MWBE firms, while $1 billion has already gone to MWBEs as part of JFK’s Terminal 1.

“I just met with Terminal 6 development, their development numbers are also at 23% MWBE awarded,” Richards added. “They’re at about $500 million (in) awarded contracts. The goal is to get them to 30%. I’m more than confident they will get there. The other thing I’m paying close attention to is the concessionaire opportunities at the terminals. I want to make sure there are real local business enterprises at the JFK project as well.”

Cotton said diversity remains a top procurement priority following its initial success at LaGuardia, where $2.2 billion went to MWBEs – “the highest number of a single project that I’m aware of in New York state.” He added that the Port Authority is on track to meet its goal of 25% of contracts going to MWBEs at JFK.

“We believe we’ll hit those goals,” Cotton said. “And we’ve set similar goals in terms of local businesses. We believe our goals are among the most aggressive in the nation. We are committed to hitting those, and it’s driving billions of dollars to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Tourism is a huge driver of economic activity in the region and these new airports are accelerating the return of tourists.
Rick Cotton, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive director

In many ways, the ongoing $30 billion overhaul is still a work in progress. While the LaGuardia upgrades are largely final, there are years of work remaining to be done at JFK and Newark. Efforts to improve transit access are incomplete at LaGuardia and Newark, and local officials have raised concerns about access to and from the airports in Queens. One possible solution for LaGuardia was a Cuomo-era plan to build an AirTrain, but the concept came under sharp criticism for its indirect route in Queens and the continued lack of a one-seat ride to Manhattan. On Gov. Kathy Hochul’s watch, the proposal was scuttled, with a promise to improve bus access to LaGuardia instead.

Now, after the Port Authority’s plans for an AirTrain connecting Flushing to LaGuardia fizzled, elected officials are calling for more express buses between Queens neighborhoods and the airports.

Cotton said that following an independent panel’s cost-benefit analysis of the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain, the Port Authority is moving forward with the recommendations of improving or creating two express bus routes. The Q70, which already exists, would see improvements, while the second option is a new express bus route running from the northwest line terminus in Astoria to all three terminals.

“And the Port Authority board authorized spending of $30 million in June 2023 and that is underway in terms of planning,” Cotton said. “We’re working very hard to implement the expert panel’s recommendations in terms of the Q70.”

Richards wants expanded bus service as well as new ferry stops at LaGuardia and JFK. But the most expensive option would be an AirTrain line connecting LaGuardia to Jamaica Station in order to give passengers a one-seat ride between both airports.

“The Port (Authority) doesn’t have the stomach to talk about the AirTrain right now, but it needs to make sense,” Richards said. “There’s no connectivity right now, it’s very hard for the local community to benefit from it. It’s more of a tourist destination.”

Assembly Member Khaleel Anderson noted that his constituents in the Rockaways don’t even have a single-seat bus connection to the airport, let alone an AirTrain link. A bus directly from the Rockaways to the airport would help “security workers, airport workers, flight attendants, and stewardesses get to and from the airport to make their shifts be able to work and have a direct connection,” Anderson said.

There is room for improvement in other areas as well. The Wall Street Journal’s latest airport ratings, which assess reliability, value and convenience, had JFK and Newark mired in the last two places among large airports in the country, although LaGuardia has improved in the WSJ’s annual list. JFK had the longest TSA lines in the country among international airports between April 2022 and April 2023. Newark had the nation’s highest cancellation rate (3.78%) in the first half of last year, and only 70% of its planes departed on time between January 2021 and June 2022, according to the Journal.

Other measures demonstrate dramatic improvements. In the latest Airport Service Quality survey of airline passengers, for example, LaGuardia went from last place in 2018 to first place last year for airports its size. Similarly, J.D. Power’s traveler satisfaction ratings saw LaGuardia jump from dead last in 2019 to average in its group. J.D. Power also rated JFK slightly above average, although Newark was still in last place. Meanwhile, Skytrax, an international air transport rating organization, gave Newark’s Terminal A and LaGuardia’s Terminal B top billing, the only two U.S. airport terminals to earn five-star ratings

According to Cotton, LaGuardia has set a new standard for the other two airport redevelopments to achieve.

“We’re very proud of how the entire airport turned out, how the terminals turned out, that we have a more efficient runway and new roadways where we went from 20 traffic lights on the airport to three,” Cotton said. “Almost every feature of the redevelopment has turned out well. It is with that experience and that quality we believe we’ve replicated that in spades at Terminal A in Newark. We want to do that and we’re in the middle of that at Kennedy.”