New York LaGuardia’s Makeover Looks Nice But It Fails to Fix Some of the More Severe Issues

LaGuardia sucks, and we all know it. But since it’s the most convenient commercial airport to Manhattan, it’s an important place. Instead of shutting the thing down as should probably happen, we’ve seen about 2,700 different attempts to “fix” the airport. The latest, a multi-billion dollar effort put forth by Governor Cuomo, certainly looks nice. But it hardly fixes everything that needs to be fixed.

So what is the problem with LaGuardia? Its runways can’t handle enough airplanes, its terminals can’t handle enough passengers, and its public transportation options are effectively non-existent. So, you know, nothing big. And this plan is only addressing one of those issues well. To really hammer this home, you need to look at a map.

New York LaGuardia Today

As you can see, LaGuardia is surrounded on three sides by water. On the fourth side is the traffic-choked Grand Central Parkway. Without pushing landfill into the water (good luck getting that approved), there is little that can be done to expand the footprint of this airport.

Passengers are currently served in 4 terminals. Very few are handled over in Terminal A. That’s the historical flying boat Marine Air Terminal that now serves Delta Shuttle flights to Washington/National and Chicago/O’Hare only. It’s a great piece of architecture but it’s fairly useless as a terminal.

Over on the other side of the airport, we have the now-connected Terminals C and D. Delta and the US Airways-legacy American Airlines flights operate from there, along with WestJet. Everyone else is in the old central terminal area, Terminal B, which confusingly has four concourses also labeled A, B, C, and D. (Whoever thought that was a good idea is nuts.)

These terminals were built ages ago at a time when there wasn’t as much need for space. Consequently, especially in Terminal B, there just isn’t enough room to do what needs to be done. Some lounges are outside security. Security areas are inadequate. Gate hold rooms are too small. There isn’t enough room for concessions. It’s just a mess. And since there’s not much room outside of the terminals either, any new plan has to sit right on top of the existing setup.

Previous plans have left the adequate Terminals C/D intact and focused on just replacing Terminal B. There was a plan well underway to do that, in fact, until Governor Cuomo decided he needed to put his stamp on the project. Politics. What a delight.

At least as best I can tell from the renderings, this is what the new plan will look like (approximately).

Proposed Design New York LaGuardia

The key to this plan appears to be the destruction of all the current parking areas that service Terminals B, C, and D and then moving the terminals down into that footprint, right next to the Grand Central Parkway. This will allow one big terminal to be built. I can only assume parking will be embedded in (above or below) this new terminal, because I don’t see a place to park anywhere else.

This will create a much bigger area in which to build the terminal, so it can be larger than what exists today. That means it will have all the amenities you’d expect at an airport. That’s one problem solved. Though it should be noted that this isn’t going to add gates to the airport. It’s just going to provide more room for the gates that exist today.

This is important, especially as talk about scrapping the silly perimeter rule escalates. If flights are allowed to go nonstop to the west coast, then you’d probably see 50-seat aircraft replaced with 200-seat aircraft. I’ve heard others point out just how impossible it would be to adequately serve those people in today’s facility. This new facility might not increase the number of gates, but it would allow bigger airplanes to be used, and that’s good.

Besides, more gates won’t help when the runways don’t change. This is already an airport that is at capacity not just for passengers but for airplanes. This project won’t change that, so new gates would be wasted.

This project would, however, improve aircraft movement. Those narrow dead-end alleyways make for a crowded house at LaGuardia today. The new concourses would have wider aprons to make aircraft movement easier and they’d be further away from the runway, providing more taxi space. But it should also be noted that at the end of the concourses closest to the terminal, there would be bridges to carry passengers so airplanes can slip underneath and taxi in and out both sides. That’s a great idea. It doesn’t help runway capacity but it does make it easier to manuever.

What’s not a great idea? Once again, New York appears to be willing to settle for a subpar public transit solution. This is incredibly frustrating to see. The plan takes the easy way out. It provides an AirTrain similar to JFK, but this one heads away from Manhattan to a subway station served by a single line. It would connect to the Long Island Railroad as well, but this is a pretty sorry solution.

But wait, there’s a ferry too. This is another thing that seems doomed to fail. The renderings show the Marine Air Terminal (Terminal A) being next to the ferry terminal. Whether aircraft will continue to operate there or not is unclear, but what is clear is that this is nowhere near the main terminal. So if someone takes a ferry, they’ll now have to find a way to get to the main terminal. Will it be a bus? Maybe the AirTrain? Either way, it’s just not good.

Do I have a better plan? Sure, if I could play god, I’d shut this thing down and then pour a ton of money into expanding JFK and putting in a proper rail link into Manhattan from there. That solves a ton of the airspace issues in New York. But it’ll never happen. Instead, we’ll see them sink billions and billions of dollars into this LaGuardia redo. The experience for people at LaGuardia will get better. The experience for people trying to get to and from the airport? Not so much. And those runways still won’t change.

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