JFK Sucks, and Cuomo Plan Won’t Fix It

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.

Private Financing

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 Theater

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.

Wifi: Ha!

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?

Retail Experience

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.

Bottom Line

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?



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  1. Chris

    Given that there exists train service from Manhattan on the A and then the AirTrain to JFK, the impossibility of connecting the two is absurd. I’m guessing that more frequent and simple service would be better for the state than an improved retail experience.

    1. cyclist

      It used to be that the budget traveler could take the A train ($1.50) to a stop near a long term parking lot for JFK and then take a free shuttle bus to the terminals. But when “improvements” were made by the introduction of the AirTrain, this option was removed. And in Newark one can take a NJ transit train from Newark Penn Station to the EWR stop, which takes about 5 minutes, but one needs to buy a special ticket that costs about $8, IIRC. If you buy a ticket to a stop further along the same line, say Elizabeth or Linden, it will only cost you a couple dollars, but won’t let you out at EWR. And once you get off the NJ transit train, one needs to take the ridiculous toy monorail to the terminals. Its almost like they don’t want you to use mass transit!

  2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

    Agreed! And if we’re considering spending real money, how about a high speed connection? The time saved by those passing through JFK would exceed the time wasted enduring that unnecessary retail experience.

  3. Synoia

    Shenzhen Airport, with a metro that goes through downtown, is an amazing experience of a large Airport. Much more impressive than the HK airport.

    The solution to fast and easy air travel is to travel naked, with no luggage. /s

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Don’t know Shenzen– but I have been impressed when passing through HK a couple of times in the last couple of years by the sheer efficiency of HK’s security procedures.

      There are many other examples I could have included about systems that have far more sensible procedures than the chaotic kabuki we see in JFK, and elsewhere in the US.

      The powers that be don’t seem to consider the cost of the time we waste w/ security theater.

    2. JBird4049

      The solution to fast and easy air travel is to travel naked, with no luggage. /s

      Hey, I know it’s sarcasm and all, but do you remember the movies Airplane! and Airplane II? The Security Kabuki we’ve all come to know, love, and cherish was flipping comedy in those movies thirty years ago. Please do not give our TSA protectors any ideas. After all I might scare the kids!


          1. JBird4049

            It wasn’t the greatest, but I enjoyed it, and somehow recently saw some clips of it, which included the security line scene.

            Remember that this is supposed to be just crazy stuff that wouldn’t reeeelly be in the real world. When I first saw the scene in the movie theater it was funny, but got me a queasy ache in the gut. Oh haha, kinda like the last time In TSA Land. Funny! Not. And nobody thirty years ago thought this level of physical and emotion molestation would be “normal.”

      1. JW

        That’s what I was thinking. I’m sure it violates some kind of law or rule or something. Yes, I’m a sheep. ATM I can’t afford a decent lawyer which means I realistically don’t have much in the way of rights.

    1. Big River Bandido

      Universal remotes which only turn off teevees are not illegal. I own a TV-B-Gone and I love it. Unfortunately, however, it does not mitigate the noise because the audio is piped through a sound system with ceiling speakers every few feet.

        1. Clive

          There’s a campaign group been started up here to try to put an end to this wilfully inhumane treatment https://pipedown.org.uk

          I just went to my HSBC Bank branch to use the ATM where, inexplicably, there was canned audio from ceiling speakers. It was a sort of pseudo radio station (a service sold to places like Walmart and gas stations (and now, apparently, banks, too!) which plays popular music tracks interspersed with a “DJ” linking them, some automatically inserted branding and messages from the store… horrible) that some bright spark devised.

          I was treated to a disco-inspired track by artist Kylie. I walked out wondering what I was supposed to do in response to this. Practice my dance moves while trying not to drop my handful of tenners (£10 notes) on the floor?

  4. Mark Hodgson

    I see that you are upset about JFK, you did note who was the strongest airport in the country holding up all the others, EWR, quite possibly the worst airport experience it is possible to have without actually getting arrested.

    Currently half the parking is shut down as the build something (hard to say what). Terminal A security is a sick Joke, Terminal B Security is a disaster, the maglev train mostly does not work, the club rooms and lounges are in the wrong places and completely packed, boarding areas are half the size they need to be, some idiot decided to build restaurants in the middle of the walkways (seriously). And with United boarding policy the lines to get on the plane typically block any space in the walkways that the eateries do not take up. Terminal B has minimal to no food options in the international departure area and the INS on inbound flights can take over and hours for US citizens because they want to use the inadequate number of computer screens to book you in before you see an agent….

    If you made the mistake of checking a bag it will arrive eventually (40 plus min). And the scrum for pick up at Terminal C makes times square look like free flowing traffic (that’s the new part). I could go on but one day I might run for office to do nothing but fix US Transportation.

    Sad thing is its better than Phili Airport that JD Power could not even be bothered to rate.

    1. Big River Bandido

      Because the three airports are so close to each other, both the landing patterns and communications with ATC are a bottleneck no matter which airport is your destination. They’re all facing delays because instead of having one general landing pattern at a single airport, pilots and planes have to thread the needle of three different ones.

    2. cyclist

      Not only is EWR a pit, but it is dominated by United, which appears to be locked in a fight with American to see which can rip off their customers more. View their ratings at airlinequality.com (which also rates airports). And if you think people only post bad reviews on that site, check out ANA, Lufthansa, or Singapore, and you will see that that is not the case. The alternatives to United and AA are either horrible (e.g. Spirit) or heading in that direction, like Delta and JetBlue.

    3. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Agreed Newark’s worse– I tend to use JFK as it’s more convenient to get to/from my home in Brooklyn. Last time I was in Newark was three years ago, and I was appalled at the terrible food options on offer. Really bad.

    4. Penny

      I beg to differ on this point: EWR is not as bad as JFK in my limited experience. I live abroad and mostly connect from home in Scotland via Amsterdam to regional cities in the US; recently I flew into EWR on a domestic flight from Phoenix and found it much better than a comparable flight experience into JFK. What both EWR and JFK share is a vulgarian oligopoly commercial culture in which status/ranks are pre-paid; it is not merely the matter of being ‘economy’ class it is the ‘in your face’ implication “what a dope you are to be ‘economy class” It is the psychic injury this inflicts which makes the intolerably bad service (from passport control to luggage carts and on and on) even more intolerable. After all if you were rich you would DESERVE good service; go out and get rich now…faster, run faster, run run run…see the guy with the funny hair…he’s running

  5. Big River Bandido

    Regarding noise: CNN is merely one quarter of the problem. Stand in any spot in JF**K or LaGarbage and you will be bombarded with CNN, EDM from a trendy expensive restaurant, 80s warmed over pop from a trendy boutique, and something insipid like Michael Booblé over the general airport speakers. The combination is truly Ivesian.

    The nickel-and-diming begins *before* you even set foot on the airport. There is no greater rentier activity on the part of neoliberal government that could be more brazen and crass than the $5 fare for a 4-minute automated train ride.

  6. PressGaneyMustDie

    God bless you syonia. If you are an atheist, then the human collective thinks you are swell. Either way, thank you very much. As a reward, I offer you a link to a company that helps you thwart burglars by making it look like you are at home when you are away: http://faketv.com

  7. Senator-Elect

    Just another consequence of Americans’ disbelief in public investment!

    Patrick Smith covers all these issues and more at askthepilot.com. He notes that the (deregulated) airlines’ choice to fly more smaller planes more often rather than a few larger planes fewer times a day is the main reason for airport congestion and flight delays.

    Finally, security theatre has to be the biggest waste of human life ever conceived and executed. What sheep we are.

    1. JBird4049

      Finally, security theatre has to be the biggest waste of human life ever conceived and executed. What sheep we are.

      True, but when the TSA can make life “interesting” as put you on a watch list, put you in for always be “randomly selected” extra screening, have you arrested (with all the possible dangers of that), even press charges, for only being annoying or insisting on the pathetically few rights you supposedly have with them. Now add in the older/younger relatives that might be traveling with you…

      The whole security regime’s purpose is not to protect you, as instead provide income, profit, and probably as a bonus to control and spy on the population. Legally protected organized theft really no different than civil asset forfeiture; interfer with the money stream and you will pay a price.
      People have taken the TSA, airport, airline, and police to court successfully but the whole system makes it extremely difficult, expensive, and exhausting.

      1. Yves Smith

        Not surprisingly, being older and WASP-y makes a difference with the TSA. I’ve gotten pissy with them more than once with no consequences, including having a long form temper tantrum after they decided they were going to search ALL OF MY LUGGAGE AND SWAB EVERY ITEM even though I was TSA Pre and in a wheelchair (ankle sprain) because they didn’t like the jacket I was wearing (a heater jacket that had been through many big international airports before without incident). What did my jacket have to do with the luggage? And this was not a high security alert day. It took nearly a half hour for this idiocy and I nearly missed my plane.

        One thing that kept them from doing more to me was this was JFK (crowded and they needed to get done with me even with their ridiculous process) and you could tell all the other people in line thought this was batshit.

        1. Alex Cox

          A good way to be sent to secondary inspection by the TSA equivalent in foreign airports is to wear a CND badge.

          As long as you’re headed for the USA, whether the airport is Mexico City or London Heathrow you are guaranteed to enjoy a second pat-down!

  8. dcrane

    Postponing changes like runway expansions and air traffic control upgrades that would reduce delays, while expanding the “retail experience” and changing for wifi, does indeed sound like a straightforward plan for profit.

  9. Lambert Strether

    Thank you for drawing attention to the Third World hellhole that is JFK. Poorly organized, horrid signage, long lines, dim lighting, low ceilings, people herded like animals, the general sense of some invisible horror pressing down from above…. And of course the cheerful images of happy Americans looming above it all.

    It’s as if whoever owns it purchased ginormous numbers of 30-gallon drums filled with Essence of Grimy Linoleum, and just sprayed the stuff all over everything.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        For Irish people its actually good – thats because they shifted the immigration and customs to Dublin and Shannon Airports – sort of a mini-USA in the bowels of both airports. It means you have to be at the airport three hours before flight time (at least), and the queues are awful, but at least it means you just stroll out of JFK without a pause.

  10. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Last time I flew into Shiva Chatrapatti Airport in India. You know, the Emerging Market, Third World Backwater?

    Seven minutes from the time I reached Immigration and was into the country..

    Those who visited India pre-1992 will understand my still lingering shock..

    Perhaps JFK should not be bemoaned but renamed, “The Best Third-World Airport on the Planet.”

  11. Ignacio

    First time I arrived at JFK was in 1979. Arriving at NY by plane and watching the street scenes for a 14yo guy arriving from –transitioning to democracy– Spain was an amazing experience. We both have changed and it seems JFK is aging worse than I do.

    I stayed for a month near Boston with an american family. It was a nice experience. Obviously those times will never come back but I think the US was a happier place to visit. OK, I was too young and memory saves mainly good feelings but yet I believe those were happier times.

  12. Alain

    The RER is, in my book, a bad example for good public transport to the airport.

    You may get lucky and catch an express RER, which whisks you straight into the city. Mostly, though you’re not as lucky and the standard RER, stopping at every station, and often blocked in the middle of nowhere for minutes at a time is not only an unmpleasant, but also a rather unpredictable experience.

    What’s left out are airport connections, which are integrated into the transport grid of the whole country. Schiphol, or Zurich come to mind. Needless to say that those airport stations also offer very swift and regular access to their respective city centers.

  13. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

    When I lived in Geneva (’86-’87), you could catch a city bus wearing your ski boots– which are difficult to walk in so one doesn’t wear them if you think you’ll have to walk any distance. City bus connected to train which connected to small mountain railway which connected to post bus. There were racks available for skis.

    One time, I was in a Swiss train station and a train was a few minutes late. My reaction when the train didn’t arrive on time was to check my watch was working. I noticed many of those waiting on the platform doing the same thing. It was more plausible to imagine that one’s watch had stopped than that a train would be late.

  14. TheScream

    I prefer flying into Lagos or Accra over JFK. I get more smiles and fewer glares almost anywhere else in the world. The US is still the only place where I am consistently grilled with “What is the purpose of your visit? How long are intending to stay? Where are you staying?” Every single time.

  15. carl

    Incheon also had the remote check in from Seoul, and its amazingly efficient, like most airports in Asia, north and south, that I’ve been to lately. Changi in particular is quite otherworldly.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Yes, Changi is pleasant, and the immigration people are polite and welcoming. And even have a sense of humor. I made a joke one time when entering about not having any chewing gum, and the immigration officer smiled and asked me what chewing gum was like. She was curious and interested.

  16. TG

    If I may make one small politically incorrect point: at Japanese airports, especially on domestic flights, indeed there is very little security. At many airports the metal detectors are basically turned off – my companion has a hip replacement that sets off every metal detector in the USA, but none in Japan!

    But there is a reason for that. Japan has a ban on allowing radical islamists from entering their country.

    You can have security at the border. Or you can let the entire world in no questions asked – and it’s a big messy world, with a lot of nasty people out there. And then you need your security on the inside of the country. Just saying.

  17. Karl Kolchak

    I’m sorry, but I fail to see why ANY taxpayer money should be used to fix an airport when air travel is more and more becoming unaffordable for a huge percentage of the population. If airlines and the relatively prosperous passengers who can afford to fly want JFK fixed, let them pay for it. Air travel is by far the most carbon intensive form of travel anyway, and needs to be greatly curtailed.

    Public transportation money should mostly be used to re-establish a robust passenger rail system, and tickets for the trains heavily subsidized to encourage their use. Let the rich fend for themselves.

  18. Altandmain

    My buddy who went abroad lately told me that if you do travel, you will realize how terrible North American airports are.

    He has gone to Changi, Incheon, Haneda, the Hong Kong airport, Zurich, and a few others I can’t remember. I personally don’t travel much by plane anymore. Don’t have the money to afford international travel and I have had enough bad experiences that frankly, make me not want to travel.

    I think that it is a sign that the US is in decline when a good quality air travel experience is out of reach of all but maybe the top 10 percent, who can at least afford premium economy. Economy these days is terrible. Super tight seats, angry security, unhappy flight attendants who I’m sure are underpaid, etc. The reason why airlines like Spirit Airlines are growing is becuase people cannot afford anything better.

    Another consideration is that Andrew Cuomo might not want to provide a good experience. There is just too much money in corporate donations for him to grease his cronies with lucrative contracts. They will be able to milk visitors of the airport for years to come.

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