LaGuardia Rebuilds to Go Beyond “Third World,” but is it Enough?

Massive Project is Expected to Boost Efficiency and Cut Delays at the Popular Airport, but Critics Point to Short Runways and Mass Transit Connectivity Issues.

LaGuardia Airport Upgrade

LaGuardia Airport is being redeveloped in a long-awaited effort to update infrastructure at a crucial New York airport. Here are the details:

  • Purpose: To relieve congestion and reduce flight delays
  • Scope of project: Includes demolition of three existing terminals and replacing them with two terminals that will operate more efficiently, along with improvements such as new roads and utilities.
  • An AirTrain mass transit connection also is planned, but no firm cost or timetable has been finalized for that
  • Project Cost: Currently estimated at $8 billion
  • Project Timeline: Work began in 2016; the rebuild and related improvements are scheduled for completion in 2025

Main players include:

New York’s LaGuardia Airport felt the lash when then Vice President Joe Biden, in a 2014 speech about America’s declining infrastructure, blasted it as fit for some “third-world country.” 

And in possibly the only instance where Biden and President Donald Trump have ever been of one mind, Trump in his run for the presidency criticized LaGuardia (as well as some other U.S. airports) for its “third world” status. 

Not everyone would fling the “third world” characterization, but finding travelers with good things to say about LaGuardia is like looking for a comfy seat in coach class.  

Brett Snyder

“LaGuardia is a mess, there’s no question about that,” said Brett Snyder, writer of the Cranky Flier airline industry blog. “It is a small airport footprint. It doesn’t have enough capacity to serve the demand. The concourses were built in a previous era when people didn’t have an issue going back and forth from ticketing to gates before the era of painful security procedures.”

Snyder said LaGuardia offers travelers room to move about and clubs to pop into before they reach security, but “past security it’s just jammed, and the airport doesn’t function very well.”

Global Gateway Alliance, a group of civic leaders pushing for improvements at New York area airports, said LaGuardia finished last in 2016 arrival performance among the nation’s 29 top airports, with 28 percent of flights arriving late.

In April 2017, Global Gateway Alliance Chairman Joe Sitt supported a city-sponsored proposal for terminal on Rikers Island, which is located next to LaGuradia. Rikers currently is the site of a prison complex that the city plans to close, which may strike a chord with travelers who hate being penned up.

“For decades, LaGuardia Airport has led the nation in delays, with traffic jams in the sky and on the ground,” Sitt said at the time. “But the proposal to knock down Rikers, and extend LaGuardia’s runways to the island, would be a big piece of the puzzle to change all that.”

LaGuardia Project Rendering
Rebuild “A Long Time Coming”   

The Rikers Island proposal has not been cleared to take off, but In 2016 LaGuardia embarked on a project to rebuild and reconfigure the airport to relieve congestion and reduce traveler delays.

Richard Smyth

“This project has been a long time coming,” said Richard Smyth, LaGuardia rebuild executive for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Smyth noted that LaGuardia, the most convenient airport for most of Manhattan, is popular with travelers but operates on a very small footprint – one square mile. “The terminals have more capacity than they were originally designed for,” he said. “The airport has been struggling with that for many years.”

Smyth noted that airports have evolved over the years in areas such as security needs, flight schedules and app-based transportation services. “Accommodating those needs is baked into the planning of the redevelopment of the airport,” he said.  

The total bill for the rebuild has been officially pegged at about $8 billion, though there has been some speculation that the cost could go up. The $8 billion consists of approximately $5.4 billion in private funding and $2.6 billion in public funding, from the Port Authority.

The rebuild includes demolishing Terminals B, C and D. They will be replaced with two new terminals, B and C, which will offer more space than the previous three.  The existing Terminal A will remain in operation.

The $4 billion Terminal B replacement is being done through a public-private partnership (P3), LaGuardia Central. The P3 consists of the Port Authority and LaGuardia Gateway Partners, which includes the Skanska project development and construction group. Delta Air Lines is replacing Terminals C and D.

“A lot of airports are in need of significant investment, and the cost and availability of money are more and more challenging,” Smyth said. “To do it through the private sector opens up a new world of opportunity for third-party investment.”

Smyth said the overall rebuild, which also includes improvements such as new roads and utilities, is scheduled for completion in 2025. A planned AirTrain mass transit connection will add to the cost, but a firm number has yet to be determined.

“It has to be constructed in phases, because one of the biggest challenges is being able to rebuild an airport while we keep the airport in operation,” Smyth said. “We’re opening pieces at a time as we go. Earlier this year we opened a new 3,200-space parking garage. Later this year we will open up the first concourse – Concourse B of Terminal B.” 

Virtually everyone agrees that a LaGuardia rebuild is as overdue as a snowbound flight home on Christmas Eve.

Snyder, of the Cranky Flier, acknowledged that the rebuild as planned “will be an improvement for travelers when it’s done. A lot of problems will be solved by bigger concourses, lounges behind security, and a single security checkpoint to make it quicker and easier to get through.”

But critics, including Snyder, are not pleased with all aspects of the plan to rebuild LaGuardia, which opened in 1939 as New York Municipal Airport.

Runway Issues

Some retired pilots have criticized the rebuild plan for not including a lengthening of LaGuardia’s short runways, which have drawn scrutiny in recent years. In 2016 Vice Presidential Candidate Mike Pence was riding in a plane that skidded off a LaGuardia runway. A year earlier, a plane slid off a snowy LaGuardia runway and came to a stop near the water. In 2009, a plane piloted by US Airways Captain Chelsey Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River after taking off from LaGuardia.

Snyder agrees that longer runways would improve safety at LaGuardia. “If you have more runway, then you have more room to recover from any issues you might run into,” he said. “If you look at the number of operations at that airport that go off without a hitch, this isn’t something that there are problems with every five minutes. But there have been some really notable accidents over the years.”

Smyth countered that LaGuardia is a domestic airport with no international flights, and operates under a 1,500-mile perimeter rule for nonstop flights. “By design, we limit the size of aircraft,” Smyth said. “Wide-body aircraft do not come to this airport. So the runways are sufficiently long enough and safe enough to handle the aircraft we’re handling today, and will continue to handle.”

Even Snyder concedes that lengthening LaGuardia’s runways would be a daunting task. “To do something like that you have to go out into the water,” he said. “You’ll spend years in environmental review. There will be all kinds of opposition to something like that, over hurting the wildlife. It’s a really difficult project, when just extending the runway doesn’t get you any more capacity. It just builds in a measure of safety. You would need to build parallel runways or do something else to build in new capacity.”  

LaGuardia Airport Construction
Transit Issues     

LaGuardia also has earned notoriety for its lack of passenger rail access, and the Port Authority intends to do something about that. In November the Port Authority authorized spending $55 million on a second phase of planning for an AirTrain that would run from LaGuardia to a station in Willets Point, Queens, where it would connect with the New York City subway and the Long Island Rail Road

Snyder characterized the AirTrain plan as “clunky.”

“They’re going with the same model they have at JFK with this AirTrain,” Snyder said. “In other cities around the world they build a new airport and they build a high-speed train that goes there from the heart of the city.”

But the planned AirTrain will not directly connect LaGuardia to the heart of New York City, Snyder said. “In New York you want to be able to get into Penn Station or into Grand Central. To me this feels like an afterthought. It feels like they wanted to put the money into building the terminals, building the concourses, making those nicer, while realizing they need to do something for transport. So they did kind of a token effort to connect systems, but it’s not enough.”

Smyth disagreed, saying the AirTrain connection from LaGuardia to subway and Long Island Rail Road lines at Willets Point will serve travelers well. The AirTrain also will run between LaGuardia and JFK, he said.

Smyth said ground transport in and out of LaGuardia also will be benefit from the the MTA’s East Side Access project, which will provide new Long Island Rail Road service to the east side of Manhattan. The $10.2 billion project, one of the largest transportation infrastructure projects currently underway in the United States, will include more than eight miles of tunneling and is scheduled to begin service in December 2022.

“By the time we get the AirTrain we anticipate that this tunnel will be operational, so we’ll have a direct connection from both Penn Station in Manhattan and Grand Central Station in Manhattan, out to Willets Point,” Smyth said. “We expect that will be a 30-minute ride from Penn Station or Grand Central to the (LaGuardia) airport.”

But while the latest projection calls for the LaGuardia rebuild to reach completion in 2025, Smyth said there currently is no firm timetable for the LaGuardia AirTrain and no firm cost estimate that mass transit connection. “It’s in the planning stages and environmental review stages, but we’re moving forward on it now,” he said.  

Different Visions

Snyder contends that even with LaGuardia, JFK, Newark Airport and some outlying airports, the New York City area needs more air travel capacity. 

LaGuardia is a unique type of airport, Snyder said. “It’s never going to be a major international hub. If this existed in most other countries, they would have just shut it and built some mega airport somewhere else, and built high-speed rail and all kinds of transit. There are cities around the world that can support multiple airports and New York is certainly one of them. But you don’t see a ton of them still operating these sorts of ancient facilities in constrained places.”

Snyder’s dream scenario for New York area air travel infrastructure? Shut down LaGuardia. “That sounds crazy,” he acknowledged. “But shut down LaGuardia and you end up solving a lot of the air space issues you have today when JFK and LaGuardia are trying to operate together. And don’t just shut down LaGuardia, because then you’re in a world of hurt. Shut down LaGuardia and put a bunch of money into growing capacity at JFK. That would be my ideal solution.”

However, Snyder said he realizes that his “ideal solution” is “not on the table.” He said LaGuardia is the most convenient airport for many travelers, and that any move to shutter it would raise an outcry. “And you would still need to put a tremendous amount of money into a place like JFK. There are all kinds of politics around that as well.”

Smyth admits that LaGuardia has been “behind the curve,” but he also pointed out that LaGuardia is “very popular” with the traveling public.

And once the rebuild is completed, Smyth said, LaGuardia “will be a state-of-the-art project and just what New York deserves.”

Stay tuned.

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