By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Last week, New York governor Cuomo announced a $13 billion plan to improve John F. Kennedy (JFK) International airport, financed by $1 billion in public money with an additional $12 billion in private funds.
The plan was originally floated in January 2017 and would transform JFK’s eight existing terminals into one unified airport, according to this account in the Architects Newspaper, JFK International Airport is slated for a $10 billion overhaul.
High time. The airport is a disgrace—as I was reminded yet again yesterday afternoon, when I had to pass through JFK purgatory to board an international flight.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. JFK ranked 14th in customer satisfaction among the 24 largest airports in the country in a survey by J.D. Power that was released last month. according to the Grey Lady’s recap of the Cuomo announcement, Cuomo’s $13 Billion Solution to the Mess That Is J.F.K. Airport. Newark’s Liberty International, ranking dead last.
The refit will include construction of two new terminals, upgrades to transportation to and from the airport, as well as between terminals. But no change will occur to the basic JFK paradigm of nickel and diming passengers, with undue emphasis on improving the “retail experience” passengers can expect at JFK, rather than a undergoing a rethink about the fastest way to get them onto their planes, without wasting their time with security theater, unnecessary shopping digressions, or incompetence. And when, btw, will we see rollout of promised free wifi– standard now even at many of the smallest Asian regional airports and not yet available at all JFK terminals.
The JFK overhaul will largely be financed by private companies. But Naked Capitalism readers know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So, what will those companies get for the financing they’ve agreed to provide? According to Cuomo’s press release (from link above):
The proposed new $7 billion, 2.9 million square foot terminal on the airport’s south side will be developed by the Terminal One Group, a consortium of four international airlines—Lufthansa, Air France, Japan Airlines and Korean Air Lines. The plans call for replacing JFK’s Terminal 1 (20 years old and undersized), which the group currently operates, and Terminal 2 (56 years old and functionally obsolete), as well as the area left vacant when Terminal 3 was demolished in 2014.
When completed, it will yield a net increase of over 2 million in square feet from the existing terminals and provide 23 international gates, 22 of which will be designed to accommodate larger, wide-body aircraft (FAA Airplane Design Group V or VI) such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or Airbus A380, which provides seating for over 500 passengers.
The new terminal will contain at least 24 security screening lanes, over 230,000 square feet of retail, dining and other concessions, 116,000 square feet of airline lounges, and 55,000 square feet of interior green space, children’s play areas and cultural exhibits. The complex will be operated by Munich Airport International and also be connected to the existing Terminal 4, which initially opened in 2001 and has been expanded twice since then, most recently in 2013.
As for the new terminal on the northside, JetBlue will foot the bill:
On the airport’s north side, the proposed new $3 billion, 1.2 million square foot terminal will be developed by JetBlue. JetBlue plans to demolish Terminal 7 (48 years old, undersized and functionally obsolete) and combine it with the vacant space where Terminal 6 was demolished in 2011 to create a world-class international terminal complex that would be connected to the airline’s existing Terminal 5 and be occupied by the airline and its various partners currently spread throughout the airport. Terminal 5 opened in 2008 and is the newest of JFK’s current six terminals.
This new terminal will have 12 international gates, all of which be able to accommodate larger, wide-body aircraft. It will feature 74,000 square feet of retail, 30,000 square feet of airline lounges, and 15,000 square feet of recreational space.
Ample other opportunities exist for private companies to profit, as discussed in Opportunities abound with JFK’s $10 billion redevelopment. Thirty percent of state-funded contracts would be reserved for minority and women-owned business enterprises.
Public Transit: Still Lacking
And transportation options still underwhelm, particularly when compared to those elsewhere.
I’ll concede that the public transit situation has improved, and it’s now possible to get from Manhattan to JFK relatively quickly using public transit. The Cuomo plan includes money to improve Long Island Railroad connections, and the Air Train service. Yet as the Grey Lady summarizes:
J.F.K. has been notoriously difficult to get to and from. Unlike many major international airports, it is not accessible from the main business districts in Manhattan by a single transit ride.
No solution to that shortcoming is on the horizon.
Still lacking are fast options modelled on the Heathrow Express, the RER (Paris), and Airport Express (Hong Kong). Hong Kong offers a sensible advance check-in service, at Central Station. Passengers can check in for their flights and leave their luggage early in the day—and then board a train later to get to the airport. Dumping one’s checked-in luggage makes it easier for people to use public transit, as they’re then not burdened by luggage as they go about their business during the day, and later undertake their airport journey.
Alas, no support exists for such an idea in the US. And in fact, US-bound passengers are further burdened compared to other passengers, in that now they’re not allowed to use Hong Kong’s advance check-in procedures,
No Plan to Address Flight Delays
JFK– and La Guardia, for that matter- are notorious for fight delays. But the new JFK plan won’t fix this. Over to the Grey Lady again:
About one-fourth of the flights into J.F.K. arrive late, compared with about 17 percent at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world’s busiest airport.
Still, the changes Mr. Cuomo announced would have only minor effects on flight delays, if any, because they do not include an additional runway or improvements in the air-traffic control system. The same is true at New York’s other airport, La Guardia, which is also undergoing a multibillion dollar rebuilding project that is not aimed at addressing chronic flight delays.
Passenger as Marks: Nickels and Dimes
Instead, no opportunity is missed to nickel and dime passengers for services that should be free— as they are in many if not most other airports throughout the world. Being nickel and dimed begins when one enters the airport. My pet peeve: those pay-for luggage carts. At most airports, these are free. Or if there’s a charge, it’s a nominal charge, of a small coin—one pound, one Turkish lira— to use the cart, intended to get the user to return the cart to a central station. That is annoying, but not as much as getting dinged $6 before setting foot in the airport.
Security lines are long, and meandering. No one seems to know what’s required. At any Asian airports, the lines are fast moving, and one’s spared steps– removing a laptop– that are necessary in the US. I find this charade particularly annoying, as Monday, I managed to leave a favourite sweatshirt at JFK security. I’m not a sweatshirt type of gal— the couple I own usually last a long time, and one vintage piece in my minuscule sweatshirt wardrobe dates to my late 70’s high school years. Now, I’m not blaming anyone else for my carelessness in leaving my hoodie behind Monday, but why the strip tease anyway? I’m sure I’m not the only one who lost something at JFK yesterday—keys, electronics. This is another cost imposed on travellers. What will be done to reduce this problem? Instead, we get…
Big Brother Will Be Watching You.
The governor’s plan calls to
[i]mplement state-of-the-art security technology, including regular reviews with third-party experts to update security to the future global best practices such as facial recognition and video tracking software that are currently being incorporated across New York’s infrastructure developments.
How about fast-tracking improvements in security screening that move passengers through the airport more quickly? Even keeping to US security protocols, it’s no longer necessary to remove electronic devices for separate screening– if US airports were to invest in the latest equipment that’s already in place at other airports. Why not fix procedures so that passengers can move through security in mere minutes, rather than the ample time JFK security currently requires.
The security mess means that the careful traveler gets to the airport early. And then what?
After check-in, one may need to do some work. Currently, the JFK wifi situation is a lottery. What is available, and at what cost, depends on the terminal– unlike many other airports, which offer free wifi or at least have cafes or restaurants where it’s available if you buy something. Even if available, the staff of the carriers have no idea that it is. Yesterday, I was able to find a free wifi service, but had to click through an annoying, pointless set of survey questions to access it: it made no sense to ask me what I thought of the quality of the service before I got on-line. So, I’m glad to see that the governor’s plan envisions free, high speed wifi, and will create multiple charging stations. My response: what took you so long? And, what ’s the timeframe for these long overdue changes? Do we have to see the complete airport upgrade before we see changes enacted that would barely bring JFK up to the international norm?
I don’t go to the airport to shop, but as a necessary step to getting from where I am to where I want or need to be. Retail revenue is now obviously a big part of the financing model for airports. Over to the NYT again:
[Mitchell L. Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University]. said the planned improvements …international terminals, would “turn the thing into a global shopping mall.” But he said that is the established trend in airports around the world, where a “captive audience” of travelers waiting to board planes is enticed to spend money in sleek shops and restaurants. “J.F.K. has been very slow to recognize that there’s more money to be made on the ground than in the planes,” he said.
Around the time of the London Olympics, IIRC, Heathrow took steps to reduce noise levels, which exacerbate passenger anxiety about flying. US airports, by contrast, bombard passengers with ubiquitous CNN coverage . I assume the network pays for the privilege of being able to blast its coverage at a captive audience. I see no attempt to reduce this scourge.
The Cuomo plan would produce a shiny new JFK with construction starting in 2020, the first gates opening in 2023, and the full upgrade finishing in 2025. Until then, JFK passengers can expect to endure the chaos that those currently flying through LaGuardia now endure and will continue to see, until that airport upgrade is finished in ten years’ time. But the Cuomo plan doesn’t address some of the many elements that currently make passing through JFK a hellish experience.
Can’t we do better than this?