Wednesday, April 09, 2014

New York Airports: The Best at Being the Worst

Travelers despise these airports—and the people who run them know it.

The three New York-area airports again ranked last in the WSJ’s annual airport survey, repeating last year’s dismal showing. New York Kennedy and Newark Liberty International finished last among large airports. LaGuardia Airport ranked worst among medium-size airports, based on statistical analysis and reader comments.

“That’s why we have the investment program we have,” says Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports. “We, the Port Authority, have to look reality in the eye and we have to recognize still that our airports by and large come in at the bottom of virtually every passenger survey.”

Wall Street Journal readers ranked LaGuardia the worst airport in an extensive survey on airports, giving it a D+ grade. The average grade from subscribers is part of the 15 categories used in the overall rankings.

“Get there super early and be prepared to be pushed and shoved around,” one reader suggested in the Journal’s anonymous survey of subscribers.

Mr. Cotton thinks the $24 billion rebuilding at the three airports will change that. LaGuardia is furthest ahead of the three, though not yet halfway to completion. New facilities have tons of natural light and breathtaking views of New York, much better food and retail options, and chic bathrooms. The new Delta concourse has a 675-foot-long glass wall with views of Citi Field and Flushing Bay. It’s a far cry from the low, leaky ceilings and dark lighting found in most LaGuardia terminals.

Today, one-third of the gates being used at the airport nearest to Manhattan are new gates. An arrival and departures building for the main terminal will open in the middle of next year, completely changing the look of the decrepit passenger depot. With that, 70% of the new roadways will open, Mr. Cotton says, making it easier to get into and out of the airport.

The $8 billion project should be mostly completed by 2022. At that point, LaGuardia’s central terminal, as well as the Delta terminal, will have been rebuilt. And it will have happened while the airport continued to grow. Passenger traffic has hit record numbers despite the construction disruption. The Port Authority had expected LaGuardia traffic to drop during construction.

The disruption is severe. Traffic around the airport is miserable. Passengers arriving at the new part of the central terminal have a very long walk to a taxi stand, and then most of the time must board a bus to get to the taxi queue located in a remote lot. Even at midnight in the rain.

“It will take almost as long to get from LGA to your destination as your flight took,” one reader said. Of an older but very busy part of the airport, another reader declared simply: “It is outdated and gross. Bathrooms are gross. No food. Update the security lines.”

Hardly any of these renovations address delays and congestion on the airfield itself, a prime problem at LaGuardia. You might consider the rebuilding a face lift, but it doesn’t address the coronary disease of the airport. The rebuilding will include some additional taxiways, which may shave some delay, but it will be decades, if ever, before any new runways are built in New York.

For the 12 months ended in July, only 70% of flights at LaGuardia got to the gate within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival time. Only Newark had a worse on-time record among the 40 airports the Journal examined—66% for that period. LaGuardia had the second-highest rate of canceled flights of any of the 40 airports in the WSJ airport rankings—only Chicago Midway was worse. And in terms of sitting on the plane waiting to take off, yup, LaGuardia has the longest time between leaving the gate and taking off.

Mr. Cotton thinks airlines need to spread out flights so LaGuardia and Newark aren’t inundated at peak hours, when most people want to go. Fewer flights on bigger aircraft might help, too.

In the large airport category, the lowest grades from readers went to Newark, followed by Los Angeles International and Kennedy: that trio each scored a C-minus.

At Newark, the steel structure of a new Terminal One was just topped out in October. The first new gates in that $3 billion facility will open in a bit more than two years. Terminal One will replace the current Terminal A, the oldest and dingiest of Newark’s terminals. Design work has begun on Terminal Two, which will replace Terminal B. The Port Authority is also building a consolidated rental car facility at Newark, and plans to extend the PATH train to that airport to provide an easier rail connection from lower Manhattan.

At JFK, groundbreaking is likely next year on a new Terminal 1, a 3 million square-foot facility that will replace the existing terminals 1 and 2. It’s being developed by a consortium that includes four international airlines and will, like the LaGuardia main terminal, be operated by a private company.

In addition, JetBlue will get a new international terminal with 12 gates large enough to accommodate wide-body jets. In all, improvements at JFK will cost more than $13 billion.

The Port Authority is also moving forward on plans to add a train close to LaGuardia and update the trains at Kennedy and Newark that loop around terminals.