June 28, 2001 -- Before I can even tell you that there's finally some good news to report on Kennedy Airport in New York, you'll have to accept that JFK creates something of a generation gap between frequent flyers.
Older travelers remember Kennedy when it was America's gleaming architectural and aeronautic gateway to the world. Younger frequent flyers, bereft of the history, know Kennedy only as a shabby, depressing, dirty and horribly inefficient blight on business travel.
I am, just barely, one of the oldsters. Kennedy was already a bit tatty and out of date when I first began flying on business in the late 1970s, but my early experiences there were always colored by my first visit. That was in 1962, when I was 9, and dressed in a jacket and tie and shiny shoes just to see my uncle off on a TWA flight to Rome. Kennedy was called Idlewild then and the TWA Terminal was one of New York's most glamorous attractions. I was entranced by TWA's soaring Eero Saarinen terminal, transfixed by its gigantic oval board of flight departures and generally giddy at the whole prospect of jets and airports and faraway places.
Yet no amount of childhood wanderlust could ever mask the precipitous decline of JFK. The last 20 years have been brutal. The airport's 1950s Terminal City design--nine isolated passenger terminals serviced by a single circular roadway--was spectacularly ill-suited for the hub-and-spoke operations favored by newly deregulated airlines. Many of the terminals were operated by airlines that became prominent financial victims of deregulation: first National, then Pan Am, Eastern and TWA. New York's intermittent financial crises didn't help. Nor did the inept, sometimes corrupt, stewardship of the airport's operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a public agency that effectively reports to no one. A seemingly endless string of patchwork renovations during the last decade has left Kennedy in a near-permanent state of reconstruction and recrimination.
From under that dust and depression, however, discerning frequent flyers can see the outlines of a new Kennedy. It's never going to be America's gleaming gateway to the world again. It may never even be among the nation's best airports again. But there's hope now, and progress, and signs of a new life at the most important international airport in the nation's most important city.
The old Eastern Terminal is gone, replaced in 1998 by a sleek, if prosaically named, Terminal One. Kennedy's traffic-clogged circular roadway is gone, too, replaced by a more flexible network of access roads. Some of them are even open to traffic. JetBlue began flying from JFK last year and suddenly Kennedy is home to a hip, hot airline that's driving down fares between New York, Florida and the West Coast.
And, last month, came the grand opening of Terminal Four, the $1.4 billion linchpin of the amorphous $10 billion plan to rescue Kennedy from its past. Simply put, Terminal Four is light years beyond what New Yorkers and international visitors have had to endure at JFK in recent decades.
Craftily shoehorned into the space once occupied by Kennedy's reprehensible old International Arrivals Building, Terminal Four has most everything a business traveler needs: 144 shared check-in stations, ample baggage claim carousels and good customs facilities. The two concourses have 16 common-use gates servicing a rainbow coalition of about three dozen carriers. There's an 850-foot-long "retail hall" that's a dead ringer for an upscale, suburban shopping mall. It even comes complete with its own eclectic food court. There are airline clubs; a business center with workstations; plenty of telephones and Internet-access kiosks; and a bank, ATMs and foreign-exchange outlets.
There are unexpected touches, too, including a remarkable 28-panel, 300-foot-wide sculpture relief of New York life mounted over the immigration booths.
(Terminal Four is not without flaws, especially the signage. Signs are all in English, unforgivable for a terminal that hosts carriers from five continents. And, shockingly, there are no external signs at all as you drive up to the departures level and no directional signs inside the check-in hall. That makes for plenty of stress, confusion and needless schlepping of luggage as you grope your way around.)
Even with the glittering arrival of Terminal Four, however, the future of Kennedy remains a mystery. The costly JFK AirTrain now under construction will not link Kennedy to Manhattan, but will only reach as far as Jamaica, Queens. Travelers will be required to switch there for New York's notoriously crowded subways or the unreliable Long Island Rail Road. Almost half of Kennedy's aforementioned $10 billion investment program is from airlines planning to expand and update their terminals. As alliances shift and the individual fortunes of carriers ebb and flow, who knows which, if any, of the projects will actually be completed. Kennedy still lacks a high-quality hotel and the roads to Manhattan remain woefully inadequate.
"Kennedy's always a crap shoot," notes Richard Williamson, a frequent flying New Yorker I met last month as he headed to his Swissair flight to Zurich, which now departs from Terminal Four. "This is the third time I've been through this place and it's nice. Very nice. Hell, it's clean. When you're dealing with Kennedy, that's a victory in itself."This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.