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

Delta, LGA - New York/La Guardia

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

  1. “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.”

    this is utter nonsense. as one of the 6+ million new yorkers that DO NOT live in manhattan, this plan doesn’t serve the rest of us. if you live in northern queens, the bronx, or manhattan north of 110th st, jfk is a ludicrous choice, rail or no rail. LGA is more than important. it’s not just the most accessible airport to manhattan, but also much of the outer boroughs. geographically, i live equidistant from LGA and JFK and i have reasonable access to the A/C and airtrain, but i would never choose to use JFK unless completely necessary.

    if the above can alleviate the ground traffic problems at LGA, it will make a MASSIVE difference. don’t forget that JFK still has ground traffic problems also.

    1. to be clear, i am NOT against better rail service to all airports, but any solution that does not include LGA improvements doesn’t make sense.

    2. I am a weekly LGA flier, so I certainly would be disappointed if it closed. When flying on business’s money, the time savings and smaller airport is more convenient (have you tried walking to end of T4 at JFK? ughhh) and I care less about public transit options.

      However, the point is still true that it sucks up resources. If we focused on JFK and closed LGA, there would be fewer delays due to better airspace configurations, more money for terminal enhancements and transportation options, and more service on bigger jets due to a viable single-airport hub for both local and connecting pax. Safety, throughput, and customer experience would likely increase in the region.

      Northern queens is not far from JFK, just less convenient than LGA. Even from the bronx, it is still probably less than 45 mins to get there by cab, even on the bad days with the Van Wyck. And a JFK focus could lead to more direct bus / rail. Hardly a Narita / Haneda argument of 2 hours difference. Westchester might be affected, but perhaps HPN might become more viable or better traffic routing from the whitestone to JFK could be invested.

      But this is NY, we will patch our way to viable infrastructure for years and years.

    3. Of course, you realize that everyone already has this issue with respect to flights beyond the perimeter? That is to say, all those places that you say are “too far” from JFK are already going to JFK for, say, nonstop flights to California, or to Europe, or anywhere you can’t fly from LGA.

      In a world without LGA, Islip and Stewart airports would become far more important, and maybe even, a little bit, Bradley (Hartford-Springfield). Doing without LGA would be feasible, but it would require better transport links than exist at the moment.

  2. Ah, finally a topic I know something about, as a DL Plat that spends an awful lot of time at LGA.

    How many times have I heard “We are number 21 for departure” and wanted to poke my eyes out?

    Agreed that the terminal thing will be better, perhaps. And agreed that the runway thing won’t get fixed. How lovely it’d be to move one of them so they didn’t intersect. And lengthen them too! (A boy can dream.)

    The thing I just don’t understand is the transit piece. You want to fix it? Extend the 7 and add a true express track, so you could do something like Port Authority, Grand Central, 74th/Broadway, LGA. Use eminent domain and make it happen. (I know, I know – dreaming again.)

    People are super good at explaining why the plan won’t work, but I’ve yet to hear any real discussion about what would work.

    Also – back to the runway thing. Environmentalists will say that screwing with the runways will kill living creatures in the bay – but looking at that water, can anyone really say with a straight face that stuff is thriving in that murk?

    I’d put up with the runway thing for nicer terminals, and a true 20 minute train ride into Midtown.

  3. LGA runways were built for the DC-3 and DC-6 era. $ should be spent extending the runways out into the water. If japan can build beautiful airports that are 15miles offshore why can’t we? LGA is on the top 10 most wanted ( un-safe) I can easily list 10 jets that have crashed there in the last 20yrs…. I know people here are going to say the rwy length had nothing to do with many of those…but the fact is that it was a contributing factor. you don’t hear of a lot of jets having issues at IAD dulles.

    1. Aside from the question of “should” is the question of “could.” Unfortunately, I dont think you can appease environmentalists + NIMBYs…

  4. Living in California one doesn’t use LGA much to get to/from NYC, so I’ve only used LGA once. If passengers hate LGA then so must people who work there as they weren’t friendly, nice or helpful. Other passengers are more helpful then people who work there.

    The best way to help LGA if they still want to keep the airport would be to only run flights to major business cities as that’s about all the airport can handle.

  5. Is there much left to be gained by trying to force airlines to use larger aircraft more, perhaps in part by cutting the number of slots? That seems to me like the only real long term solution absent new runways. Although looking at AA’s LGA-DFW and LGA-ORD schedules as an example, the frequencies actually don’t look too absurd: never more than one flight an hour. The five daily LGA-PHL flights is on the absurd side (yes, I understand that it’s for connections, not to compete with the 75 minute ride on the Amtrak Regional).

    I might even propose a reverse perimeter rule: no flights under, say, 225 miles, done in concert with real improvements in short-distance inter-city rail service, starting with a second pair of train tunnels under the Hudson. (Ha ha, very funny.) But at least going north-south along the Acela corridor, eliminating the DCA and BOS shuttles altogether might be good for the overall situation at LGA, although it’s probably a nonstarter with DL and USAA.

    1. An air/train through-ticketing arrangement for connections to Philly/DC/Boston would be good.

      And a pony.

    2. Alex – Well, this gets back to the issue of who should have access to LaGuardia. If you eliminate small aircraft, then places like, say, Charlottesville or Dayton will lose their access. Is that fair to disadvantage them just because more people want to go to Orlando? It’s a constant topic of discussion. I can’t say I have the answer to that.

  6. LIRR, believe it or not, is a reliable transportation option to head into Manhattan, albeit a bit more expensive than the subway. The line drops you right into Penn Station NY, at a faster speed than the 7 line (the subway at Mets-Willet Point). This setup is certainly better than the Green line at LAX.

    Also, based on the rendering pictures, it looks like a plaza will be built between the Marine Air Terminal and the central, along with an on-site hotel.

  7. This is like lipstick on a pig to me. Until you fix the runway issues, this airport will have terrible operations. At least you won’t be stuck in a dump while waiting for your flight.

    1. Nevermind the new parking garage opposite DL Terminals C-D, there is also a huge power plant still being built just opposite DL Terminal C that probably cost many, many 100’s of millions…..what is the Port going to do, knock all of this down and start it all over again ??, if so, where ?? No mention of other issues such as car rentals, gas stations, fuel tanks and employee parking (now just past the Marine Air Terminal) on a triangular piece of land that the Port is also thinking of sharing for public parking ? They should have been planning a makeover 30 years ago; now instead of 50 lbs of whatever in a 30 lb bag you have 250 lbs trying to be shoved into a 30 lb bag.

  8. Well for many who have more convenient access to LGA, would a direct JFK express train from Penn Station that makes no stops except maybe one at Jamaica and then a lower Manhattan express do the trick? Or would having that fast vehicle access still be the big reason to keep LGA?

    1. An express train to JFK existed throughout the 1980s and was discontinued due to low ridership. Of course, this was well before AirTrain, so it just dumped passengers at Howard Beach. Also, unlike the A train, the express traveled in Midtown down 6 Av rather than 8 Av.

  9. The reverse perimeter idea is intriguing but I can imagine the world class $%¥” fit that would cause.

  10. I don’t know why everyone likes to hate on La Guardia. Sure, it’s crowded, but so what? It’s nothing like the crowds at the Asian airports. It’s not a hub where you would normally connect at, so who cares? Get in and get out.

    1. Well, JIm, there are plenty of us out here in the real world who don’t reserve their hatred JUST for La Guardia. IMHO, New York City is just one big hassle, and as much as I’d like to spend time there (especially at the museums), I have to vote with my feet. I can’t breathe there — it’s dirty, hot, humid and horribly smelly. EVERYBODY there seems cranky at best — it’s not just the employees at LGA. At least we in New Mexico have learned to SMILE while we’re emptying tourists’ pockets. (We locals don’t call it Santa Fake for nothing!) My last trip to New York I was sick the entire time because of the wet weather and pollution, and the frosting on the cake was the attempted extortion by the cab driver who took me from Manhattan to Newark Airport who pulled the “no English” scam, pretended not to be able to find the airport, and then attempted to charge me $350 for the trip. Thank the gods I was rescued by an airport cop who threatened to arrest the cabbie on the spot. Amazing how fast the cabbie learned to speak nearly perfect British-accented English when faced with a trip to the slammer. Is it any wonder I New York?

      By the way, my vote for NASTIEST USA city is Philadelphia. I spent a year there one weekend. Highlights include having a plate of food thrown down on the table (and all over me) at Denny’s. At least nobody ever did that in New York, although a few looked like they were thinking about it.

      1. We all have different preferences. Some people like the excitement of a big city, others would prefer to live in a cabin in the woods. That’s the great thing about our country, we have a lot of options.

      2. You were in Philly, a city of incredible restaurants in nearly every neighborhood, and you went to DENNY’S? Denny’s is a dive in any city… you can’t be surprised about crap food or behavior there.

        Sorry you missed out on the awesome stuff Philly has to offer.

    2. “I don’t know why everyone likes to hate on La Guardia. Sure, it’s crowded, but so what? It’s nothing like the crowds at the Asian airports. It’s not a hub where you would normally connect at, so who cares? Get in and get out.”

      Have you been to an Asian airport? If you’re putting La Guardia in the same sentence, I suspect not.

  11. That probably had more to do with eating at Denny’s than being in Philly. I’ve found that other than many of them having a curiously strange speech impediment, Philly folks are generally like everyone else: a few obnoxious drunks and surly a-holes, the rest friendly and helpful.

  12. Point of clarification – the two hangars between terminals B and C were demolished this year. It also appears that the new substation and parking garage in front of C are absorbed by the new terminal, not demolished. The ticketing level will be equivalent to 6 or 8 floors above ground level in that case. Also curious how TSA is going to feel about cars driving and parking under the terminal!

  13. Just for the record, the full committee report does address the parking issue by stating, “The Port Authority is currently constructing a new 1,100-space parking garage on the east end of the airport, and a new 3,100-space parking garage will be carried out by the public- private partnership for the construction of the western half of the main airport.”

    I assume Cranky meant his comments tongue-and-cheek, but it would violate current security regulations to have parking on top of or below the terminal building itself.

    What’s interesting to me is that Terminal A is completely ignored in the discussion of the “new” LGA — in both the renderings and the full committee report. The plan doesn’t specify whether the MAT will be closed or continue to operate separately from the new facility — other than to briefly reference that this restored ferry service would be integrated with the MAT.

  14. I’ve seen a lot of reviews of these plans with speculative comments about certain things not being clear. Did you try talking to folks responsible for this project?

  15. Not that it matters but you have the order incorrect for Terminal B. A is closest to Terminal C while Pier D is closest to the Marine Terminal.

  16. It’s too bad that 40-50 years ago, nobody had the foresight to buy up the land surrounding JFK (before NIMBYs) and create additional landfill (prior to the environmentalist powerbase) to accommodate for additional airside infrastructure. Now it’s too cost-prohibitive to do so, and existing infrastructure is well-established. This could have allowed for LGA to be closed, and for a multitude of tax-revenue-generating developments to have been built in its place by now.

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