The Plan to Fix JFK Focuses on the Wrong Thing

JFK - New York/JFK

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

  1. 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 90 minutes at peak time for customs and immigration, it will still suck.

    i argue that the location of jfk is way worse than lga. i live in brooklyn, and getting there every week stinks.

    any improvements will be marginal, at best.

  2. “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.”

    Don’t you think it might have been a good idea to reach out to somebody with knowledge of the plans to better understand what is actually envisioned before proclaiming a verdict on it?

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

      1. 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.

        1. 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

    1. 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.

  3. 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

  4. “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 city is probably the right plan long term but as history has shown that only works when existing airports are forced to shut down. I don’t think the best plan is to throw good money after bad trying to fix a flawed JFK.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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. While an express runs from Howard Beach to 59 St in about 48 minutes, the new A train could skip some additional stops in Brooklyn and Queens, first by not stopping at the station and eventually by a new express track, cut that time down even further. They could also connect it to the underused 42nd St Shuttle tracks to add a connection to Grand Central too. However, this would require out of the box thinking and a desire to use existing assets, rather than create expensive new ones which is not popular by MTA, the Port Authority or Cuomo.

    I can’t believe they would demolish Terminal 8, it is just 10 years ago, and very spacious. I think at one point, they considered building a new wing and moving British Airways and the other Terminal 7 tenants over. Terminal 7 could then be demolished and replaced with an extension of T5 or T8. Same with Terminal 2, simply expanding Terminal 4’s A concourse would allow the rest of Delta’s flights to move over, allowing Terminal 1 to add another pier.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

        1. 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.

    4. 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 narrower lines

  7. 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 what configuration LGA is using, JFK may be forced to use certain runways (and vice versa) which impacts the efficiency of each airports operation. No other city in the world experiences this type of congestion to this extent.

    It’s up to the FAA in this case, as they would have to work towards better deconflicting LGA and JFK, something that’s not easy to do given their proximity and current navigational technology. The hope is that perhaps NextGen and a “metroplex” redesign similar to what has been done in Southern California could help open things up, but that’s likely a few years away.

    1. Steve – As for runways, I’ve spoken to some creative folks who see opportunities, but frankly, there should be a real debate about expanding into Jamaica Bay. I understand that’s not an easy task, and the opposition is enormous, but air travel is only going to grow. New York needs to have a solution to handle air traffic growth and so far there is absolutely none.

      Good point on airspace. That’s why I’d like to see LaGuardia closed and a ton of money sunk into JFK. That solves a lot of problems, but it’ll never happen.

      1. I cannot see wasting time and effort on expanding into Jamaica Bay. There’s no point in a “debate” that you’ll lose. In 1972, the city transferred ownership of the Wildlife Refuge to the National Park Service, and the site became part of Gateway National Recreation Area. Forget it. They’re better off spending time, effort and money on inducing demand at Stewart. Pick your battles.

        1. A high speed express train from Grand Central to Stewart (think bullet train) would be a good way to get people to use it, but politics and money mean it will never happen.

      2. closing LGA and expanding JFK is psychotic. the remoteness of JFk to most new yorkers makes it the THIRD choice airport and that has notjing to do with number of runways, taxiways, or the condition of the terminals. it has to do with access. stop pretending that new yorkers do not use cars, because they do. you can’t get everywhere in the city with a subway or bus, and using either with luggage just sicks.

        1. Define “most” and define “New Yorkers”

          JFK is easier to access than EWR for everyone in New York State except Rockland County and the west side of Manhattan.

          Yes LGA is preferred for most, but it’s strange you call out car owners and imply they prefer LGA…if I’m driving myself to the airport I dramatically prefer JFK because parking is much cheaper and easier.

          If you’re implying car owners in NYC or NYS prefer EWR, all I can say is LOL.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. The thing is, there is no one best answer to the NYC region’s air traffic problems. Watch the regional traffic flow on Webtrak ( – 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; Manhattan: 22.82 square miles (these values come from a quick Google search – I apologize if they’re not quite accurate.) The 3 main NYC airports are measured in ACRES, not square miles. Get my point? The only way for the New York area to get a properly sized and centrally-located airport would be to strip Manhattan bare. Ain’t gonna happen there, or anyplace else close by, either. Even if it was possible to take Manhattan over for an airport, it would still be only a bit more than 75% the size of DFW,

    So — the alternative is to make the best use of what already exists at JFK, LGA and EWR, and improve the transportation links to the best feasible and affordable alternatives. That seems to be precisely what’s happening. Well, maybe “best” isn’t quite the right term, but you know what I mean.

    My best regards to all you interesting folks. The discussion is always lively and interesting here!
    Ms. I

  11. 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.

  12. 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)…

  13. 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 on airport property.

  14. 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 home to the airport in 20 minutes, 40 in rush hour. Parking (official airport parking) is $7/day and is almost never sold out. If you’re picking up or dropping off and you want to park, the first hour is free!

    When I need to be in NY (fairly frequently) I fly into JFK as the AirTrain/Subway combo is the surest and cheapest way into town (less than an hour). It is sucky if you have heavy luggage as you’ll be dragging it up and down stairs a lot. And you’ll likely stand the whole way from downtown to JFK on the return. But it beats the Van Wyck and all the preceding roads.

    The whole upgrade reminds me of an experience decades ago in Manhattan. I used to fly frequently to NYC from London, where I lived, and stayed at the Intercontinental Midtown. The rooms were small, and had the very loud, individual AC’s in each room. It was horrible, but we had a corporate account, and the hotel was literally across from the office.

    One day I checked in, and saw signs proudly proclaiming a multi-million dollar refurbishment. I was excited and asked the desk clerk what it all entailed. He told me that the money was to be spent on an upgrade to the lobby and bar area. The rooms? Not so much…

    Like Stan (very first comment) said: you can make the buildings look nice and make your stay amenable. But if everything else continuous to suck, it will still be a sucky experience. Lipsticks and pigs come to mind!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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 airport opened in 1962.

    Mobile lounges were used to transport passengers from terminal to airplane, which meant no giant concourses needed to be built.

    From the Wikipedia article above:

    By the 1980s the original design, which had mobile lounges meet each plane, was no longer well-suited to Dulles’ role as a hub airport. Instead, midfield concourses were added to allow passengers to walk between connecting flights without visiting the main terminal. Mobile lounges were still used for international flights and to transport passengers between the midfield concourses and the main terminal.

    Have the mobile lounges been proven to not be economical, or workable ?

    I have not been to IAD for many years…

    Peter in Boulder, CO.

    1. Peter – No, the mobile lounges proved not to work as well as hoped and they’ve built a train to carry people underground between terminals. For what it’s worth, I really disliked the mobile lounges going back and forth to the concourses, because they weren’t always reliable from a timing perspective. You could get held up by ground traffic, etc. I didn’t mind the mobile lounge directly to the aircraft though (did that once with Lufthansa 25 years ago) but it’s not practical to do that with so much volume.

  18. 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) were consigned to a single, generic International Terminal. The major exception was BOAC (later to become the basis of British Airways) and Air Canada which had their own, dedicated terminal.

    Part of the underlying assumption was that New York was that the origin and terminus of your trip was New York. The concept of domestic or international connections was limited to within a particular airline (TWA internationaldomestic, Pan Am internationaldomestic, etc.) As such, the concept of inter-terminal connections was effectively ignored.

    In terms of transportation to and from Idlewild, even with the AirTran kludge (schlepping yourself and luggage between multiple systems) it is indeed simultaneously a disaster and disgrace, especially compared with available direct-from-terminal real train service available in most major European airports. But with Robert Moses, what would one expect? The New York parkway/expressway system (including such masterpieces as the Belt Parkway, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, Long Island Expressway, Cross Bronx Expressway, Hutchison River Parkway, and Southern State Parkway) was Robert Moses’ crowning achievement and legacy – public transportation and the public be damned!

    Mix into this whole mess the openly politically and monetarily-corrupt Port Authority (another part of the Robert Moses empire) and the outlook for any improvement is really bleak – at any of the New York metropolitan area airports.

    One area in Cranky’s original article that I would take issue with is that of a very critical need for one or more additional runways. Although this might be “nice” and possibly improve some operations in inclement weather, the fact is that Idlewild already has four full length runways which is not inconsistent with runway capacity for airports with comparable passenger traffic elsewhere in the United States and internationally – LHR and HKG each have only two runways (obviously ludicrous), PEK has only three runways, FRA and CDG each have four runways, ATL with much more traffic has five runways, and ORD again with much more traffic (in terms of number of flights) has eight runways.

    The only “real” solution to the mess would be a combination of major modernizing/connecting of the terminals (including air-side beyond security), introducing direct into-the-airport train (real trains as well as subway) service to Manhattan, and major simplification of the internal road system.

    1. Dov – It’s not fair to compare the 5 parallel runways in Atlanta to the 4 perpendicular ones at JFK because the capacity differs great. Look here:

      In Atlanta, you can have over 200 arrival/departures per hour in visual conditions. That only drops to a low of 170 in instrument conditions. At JFK, it’s 80 to 90 per hour in visual conditions. When the winds blow the wrong way, things can get very ugly. The number of runways doesn’t matter. It’s how many airplanes you can put on them.

    2. 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 Tunnels”) and the design/construction of various NYC area parkways, none of which involved the Port Authority. Folding TBTA into MTA was a way of easing Moses out of power after he overstayed his welcome.

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