The Plan to Fix JFK Focuses on the Wrong Thing

We’ve heard a lot about the billions of dollars being sunk into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, but what about JFK? Oh don’t worry, there are plans to spend billions there as well. Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out what he calls a “vision plan” for the future of JFK. (Translation: none of it will actually happen as proposed.) While there are some good ideas in there, the two most important pieces to improve JFK, a train to Manhattan and a new runway, are either marginalized or ignored completely.

Let’s start with a look at JFK today.

JFK Today

Looking at that map, you’re probably wondering what drunk person designed the place. And the reality is, nobody did. I mean, the terminals at JFK have been developed and redeveloped independently. There is no coherent plan, and that’s what this new proposal is supposed to address.

Here’s the ridiculous pie-in-the-sky vision that will cost about $10 billion, and I assume that’s a very conservative number.

JFK Proposal That Will Never Happen

On this map, east is straight ahead. JetBlue’s Terminal 5 is at the far end. On the right is Terminal 4 in the distance (the home of Delta and a bunch of international carriers). Up close on the right appears to be a new terminal that sits on the ashes of today’s Terminals 1 (Air France, JAL, Korean, Lufthansa, and many others) and 2 (Delta – along with the ghosts of now-demolished Terminal 3). On the left, it looks like Terminal 7 (British Airways) is gone in favor of something new. And even the very new Terminal 8 (American and friends) seems to have been completely redesigned. This is a massively ambitious plan that’s never going to see the light of day.

The other thing you might notice is that the spaghetti roadways that exist today are cleaned up and replaced with a far simpler design. That’ll help with road traffic indeed, and there’s more. This plan will rework some of the bottlenecks on the roads leaving JFK. That’s nice, but it’s also somewhat short-sighted.

The report says that JFK will grow by a third in total passengers by 2030, reaching 75 million a year. These people might go through fancy terminals, but are they all really going to drive? And, um, how is the airport going to actually get all those people into the air on time?

By 2030, presumably self-driving cars will be reality to some extent, making roadways automatically more efficient. But more importantly, public transit will only gain in stature. While billions will go into roadway development, this report only gives a nod to any meaningful transit changes.

Today, the best public transit options require taking the inter-terminal AirTrain out to one of two stops where you can then transfer either to the subway or to the Long Island Railroad. It’s somewhat clumsy and not sufficient.

This report proposes simply adding capacity to the AirTrain and making the connection easier. That’s weak. A real solution would involve having a train that goes straight from JFK into Manhattan. What about that?

The MTA and the Port Authority should also conduct a comprehensive analysis to evaluate the possibility of a one-seat ride to JFK Airport from Penn Station New York, Grand Central Terminal, and/
or Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Station.

Yeah, a “comprehensive analysis,” huh? And one run by two notoriously slow public agencies? That sounds likely to result in… well, nothing.

Back on the airport, those 75 million travelers will have fancy-looking terminals and all that, but how many of their flights will be on time? The report talks about optimizing taxiway configuration, but JFK can’t run well today when the weather gets ugly. You think simply doing some taxiway work is going to make it run well with 75 million passengers?

No, what this airport needs is more runway. Building a runway anywhere in the US is a near-impossible task, but if JFK plans on generating $10 billion of spending, it would be better off sinking a big chunk of that into giving airplanes more takeoff and landing capacity.

In the end, this is probably a political stunt more than anything. We’ve seen how many times plans were made and discarded at LaGuardia. If anything happens at JFK, it probably won’t look anything like this. I can only hope that in version 2 (and 3 and 4…) there will be more attention paid to the two things that really matter: runways and public transit.

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52 Comments on "The Plan to Fix JFK Focuses on the Wrong Thing"

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stan
Guest
i doesn’t matter what the airport looks like or how it is laid out. if you still have to take the belt parkway, the van wyck, or conduit ave to get there, using the airport will still suck. even if you get a 45-60 long one-seat ride to penn station, using the airport will still suck. if you still have to walk 20 minutes from gate 53 in T4 to the train, bus, or taxi stand, it will still suck, and if you still have to park a million miles away, it will still suck. if you have to wait… Read more »
TFG
Guest
“On this map, east is straight ahead. JetBlue’s Terminal 5 is at the far end. On the right is Terminal 4 in the distance (the home of Delta and a bunch of international carriers). Up close on the right appears to be a new terminal that sits on the ashes of today’s Terminals 1 (Air France, JAL, Korean, Lufthansa, and many others) and 2 (Delta – along with the ghosts of now-demolished Terminal 3). On the left, it looks like Terminal 7 (British Airways) is gone in favor of something new. And even the very new Terminal 8 (American and… Read more »
Nick
Guest

You obviously don’t know how “great” the Port Authority is about envisioning anything productive… Cranky is spot on…

Jon Snow
Guest

How does EWR escape these grandiose plans? No Gov. Cuomo?

Andy
Member

Newark is generally considered the third tier airport for nyc

Rob
Guest

Is that really true? I mean, EWR handles more traffic, and obviously has a much larger international presence than LGA. It’s also got Amtrak and NJT onsite, so it’s definitely convenient (if pricey) as far as getting into Manhattan.

My perception may be skewed–I usually fly United, so that obviously means I see EWR a lot more, but I always just assumed it was the second airport.

Tyrell
Guest

With Newark being in New Jersey, it would be under New Jerseys Gov (Christie) to come up with a plan to improve the airport. Since this is a man who killed the ARC rail tunnel because he said it would be too expensive (even though the Fed was picking up the tab for it) think its safe to say improving Newark would be last on his list. Plus, as a New Yorker, for many of us, LGA is a far more convenient airport to JFK. Unless your going international, LGA is the way to go

gabeandino
Member

For one thing the PA only has so much money to go around. They’re still trying to figure out what to do with the bus terminal in Manhattan, funding for a new rail tunnel and the LGA plan. That said, EWR is rebuilding Terminal A which houses all the US domestic carriers and United Express. The main problem at EWR is the runway layout but there’s not much that can be done there because there’s nowhere else to put pavement. One plan is to extend the crosswind runway (11/29) to increase capacity somewhat.

Jason
Guest

EWR is in New Jersey, so different governor.

Nick Barnard
Member

EWR, LGA, and JFK are all managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, so you’ve got both the Governor of NY and NJ over the agency.

John
Guest

If LGA were closed, how much additional capacity would JFKs runways be able to handle? Can you use all 4 runways simultaneously in most wind conditions? I think the 4/22’s are 3400 ft apart and with special restrictions can support dual IFR staggered approaches

A
Guest
“Looking at that map, you’re probably wondering what drunk person designed the place.” Quote of the year, and yes, I’ve often pondered what the heck they were thinking. What should’ve been done forever ago is building an all new facility that can handle the traffic they saw coming their way. Granted that New York doesn’t have the land available that Atlanta or Dallas has but both of those cities were forward thinking at the right time and built master planned airports than can handle serious passenger volume. I’ve said in the past that a new airport further away from the… Read more »
gabeandino
Member

Back in the day each airline built and operated their own individual terminal. This layout was tweaked as time went on but it obviously doesn’t work in this day and age.

Jason H
Guest

I’m curious if they have any plans to mitigate sea level rise. I’ve always wondered that when flying into JFK or LGA (or SFO for that matter). The airport is right on the water and just a few feet of rise means the airport is toast.

gabeandino
Member

The Port Authority started looking into sea level rise and storm surge soon after Hurricane Sandy swamped LGA, JFK and TEB. The study is in progress.

Zack Rules
Guest
Spot on Cranky as always, especially on declining highway traffic and increased mass transit use. I remember reading that some 54% of DCA passengers arrived via Metro which is right across the street but can’t find that article. At JFK, the easiest mass transit solution would be to split the A train from Howard Beach and run it to two stations at Terminals 1/2/8 and Terminals 4/5/7. The A train would be an express and passengers would pay an exit fare at JFK in addition to their entrance fare so that the subway could still be used by non-airport passengers.… Read more »
Alex B.
Guest

I don’t know what article that was for DCA, but there’s no way it’s that high of a transit mode share. It’s more like 15-20% arrive at DCA via Metro.

Alex B.
Guest

And, right on cue, new data from the DC area Transportation Planning Board. They estimate 12% of DCA passengers arrived via Metro in 2015.

http://www.tpbne.ws/featured/ride-hailing-apps-are-changing-how-people-get-to-the-regions-airports/

12% transit
14% TNCs
25% regular taxi

A small portion arrive via shuttles, and the remainder arrive via car – either to park themselves, or to be dropped off.

Bill Hough
Guest

Regarding Terminal 8, this concept envisions completing the headhouse, which is currently about half built and completely redoing the gate areas. The former makes sense but the latter is just dumb. They could also build something on the site of old Terminal 3.

You might be able to build a 4C/22C but I can’t imagine building another 13/31, given the protected nature of Jamaica Bay on one side and fully developed real estate on the other.

JuliaZ
Member

DCA’s Metro stop isn’t “right across the street”. It’s connected via skybridge one floor up from baggage claim – the only “outside” is actually on the platform waiting for the train. I love that connection and use DCA for all my work trips to DC and MD, as I save a fortune not renting a car and dealing with all those hassles. All airports near major cities should have train connections – Denver, DC, Seattle, SFO all do this well.

Maarten Albarda
Member

Add ORD to that list as well!

Kilroy
Guest

ORD and SFO have great trains to downtown. I am amazed that NYC has not been able to do the same, but assume (rightly or wrongly) that the main reason has been the political pull of the taxi lobby.

stan
Guest

so, run it like the old aqueduct express train but just expand it all the way to JFK?

jabelson
Member
The could not connect the A-Train (or any of the IND/BMT letter trains to Grand Central). The IRT system (the number trains) use a different size rolling stock. The IRT trains are 8 feet 9 inches (2.67 m) wide & 51 feet 4 inches (15.65 m) long. The IND trains (which includes all service to/from JFK) used trains that are 10 feet (3.05 m) wide and either 60 feet 6 inches (18.44 m) or 75 feet (22.86 m) long. The difference might not seem like alot, but its just enough to prevent the larger trains from being used on the… Read more »
Tyrell
Guest

Years ago New York City did have a dedicated train to JFK, it was cancelled due to low ridership

gabeandino
Member
New runways at JFK would be fantastic. But where? Can’t build them in Jamaica Bay… One other capacity aspect you missed is airspace. This probably has a bigger impact than the number of available runways and is one of the main reasons this plan doesn’t address airfield capacity beyond reconfiguring taxiways. JFK is really close to LGA on top of that both airports have runways aligned in the same direction (4/22 and 13/31). EWR’s proximity is another factor. The delay issues at New York airports a lot of times stem from having to share the same airspace, and depending on… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Guest

From the air, it does look like JFK needs to be erased and redone. But then again, so does just about every other major airport.

Jason
Guest

If JFK were to be rebuilt like proposed, wouldn’t it be more efficient space-wise to have one or two large passenger ‘terminals’ and then a handful of airside concourses like Atlanta? Ground access would be simplified since you don’t need the complex loops or landside transit stations.
Of course it won’t happen and airspace issues are more important than terminals, but if they are proposing to rebuild most of it they may as actually improve it’s functionality as well as appearance.

Miss Informed
Guest
The thing is, there is no one best answer to the NYC region’s air traffic problems. Watch the regional traffic flow on Webtrak ( http://webtrak5.bksv.com/panynj4 – you may have to play with the zoom level to see everything), and you’ll see the intricate ballet that goes on between local traffic and high-level flights to other more distant destinations. It’s a miracle the system works at all! My hat is off to the air traffic controllers! Some of you are going to laugh here, and I don’t blame you. Compare the sizes of: DEN: 54.02 square miles; DFW: 29.9 square miles;… Read more »
southbay flier
Guest

It feels like become more like SFO. People like how nice (some of) the terminals are, but if there is a cloud in the sky, you could be delayed for hours. I really hate using any of the NY airports for connections since they all are operational clusters.

Matthew
Member

I’m wondering why they would just demolish T8…It’s newer than T4 and only slightly older than T5…all very nice terminals (besides the walks in T4)…

Bgriff
Guest
As for roads, the current scheme isn’t pretty, but I actually think it’s pretty good for efficiency. It’s certainly better than LAX and many other “big loop” airport setups where cars essentially have to pass every single terminal in the place to get to any single one. Considering how bad traffic can be at individual JFK terminals (T4 especially), anything that combines that traffic with the flow from yet other terminals seems like a bad idea. Traffic between the airport and Manhattan can be a mess, but other than at-terminal pick-up/drop-off congestion, I have never experienced any significant traffic trouble… Read more »
Maarten Albarda
Member
One of the key reasons for us to move away from the Tri-State area 18 months ago was the nightmare travel to any of the three NY airports. I travel almost weekly. We were in Stamford, CT and on a good day any of the airports could be reached in an hour by car. On a bad day? Two to three hours minimum. Parking? Hideously expensive! Alternative of train (Stamford – GCT, transfer to subway, transfer to Skytrain) was a 2+ hour obstacle race. We now live on a NC mountain close to CLT and I can travel from my… Read more »
Chris
Guest

For what it’s worth, airport connectors are a fairly poor use of (very limited) public transit dollars in terms of ridership: https://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/quick-note-a-hypothesis-about-airport-connectors/

tortugamon
Guest

If it is so impossible to build a runway why has ORD, DTW, and DEN has plans to build up to 12. Impossible to build a runway in the US is BS.

Bill Hough
Guest

It is much easier to build a runway on the Kansas prairie at the new DEN than it would be to expand JFK into a National Recreation Area.

SEAN
Guest

JFK for as long as I can remember has always been under construction for one reason or another.

Now that Stewart is under the control of the PANYNJ, you are going to see grand plans to turn it into the next JFK. After all if the new DEN can be built in the middle of nowhere, then why not in the NYC area. Not saying it’s smart, just pointing it out.

Peter Richards
Member
In the newish (1995) Denver airport, the three terminals (A, B and C) were spread very far apart, connected by underground train, with the big main terminal, where ticket counters, baggage check and pick up are, security, etc. The only way to get to the three terminals, is via the ‘main’ terminal. You cannot board an airplane at the main terminal. Logistics of passenger arrival, departure from the main terminal work well, whether by public transit, personal car, shuttle, etc. A Washington Dulles, IAD, another ‘system’ was tried, by architect Eero Saarinen, from Finland, many years ago, the then new… Read more »
Dov Isaacs
Member
The major problem with Idlewild Airport (a.k.a., JFK) was that its basic design was not that of an airport, but rather that of a World’s Fair. That can be traced to the legacy of Robert Moses, the almighty head of both New York World’s Fairs, but also the entire New York State Parkway Authority. Each of the terminals was designed to mimic a World’s Fair pavilion, showcasing a particular airline. From this came magnificent edifices such as the TWA and Pan Am terminals – architectural marvels, but lousy airline terminals. Minor airlines (i.e., most of the non-US based international airlines)… Read more »
Bill Hough
Guest
Back in IDL/JFK’s heyday, there was no such thing as PA international/domestic, as the government, in its infinite wisdom, would not allow PA to fly domestically until just before deregulation. That said, you’re right that IDL/JFK as built only really worked as an O/D airport. One of the reason the airport stagnated in the late 1970s/1980s was that airlines began overflying Noo Yawk which allowed pax from inland markets to avoid JFK. Also, the PONY Authority (as it was then called) was not a Moses enterprise. Moses was instrumental in the Triboro Bridge Authority (later TBTA, now “MTA Bridges and… Read more »
Ken
Member

I hope you are wrong, but I fear you are right.

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