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JFK Airport Deserves Better – And So Do We | REnotated

JFK Airport Deserves Better – And So Do We

  • Entering New York City through John F. Kennedy Airport has become more disorganized than efficient, more rundown than modern, and more depressing than inspiring.  What used to be our grandest international gateway has become worn out from overuse and fallen behind in physical appearance and quality not only to most European airports, but also to many found throughout Asia.  On my last return from Berlin we were parked at a “remote location” upon our arrival, apparently because there were no available gates.  I had the feeling we had arrived unannounced and created an annoying inconvenience, which now required that last minute arrangements be quickly thrown together.

    A people mover was brought out to take us off the plane, which might not have been so bad except this one looked like it had been hastily recommissioned after being long abandoned in some forgotten corner of the airport.  The seats were cracked blue vinyl covered in black mildew; and out of fear of staining one’s clothes only the truly exhausted actually sat in them.  Most just crowded in as best they could and stood in the wide middle aisle.  As the people mover started to make its way to the terminal I heard a few subdued titters from the mainly European passengers around me.  I laughed too, but it was a nervous laugh tinged by embarrassment.  Is this really the first impression we give foreign visitors to what some of us like to think is the world’s greatest city in the world’s most powerful country?

    The people mover swayed slightly as it tacked a listing course to the gate like a battle-scarred frigate.  A safety door slammed erratically due to a faulty latch.  We hit a bump (are there potholes on the JFK tarmac?) making us lurch precariously, which initiated an aimless rattle somewhere in the belly of our land ship.  It was a slow, shameful procession to the terminal.  When we finally made it to the gate, through the cattle chutes of passport control and customs, and out to the curb it was the middle of the afternoon.  A group of airport employees stood around and loudly complained about their manager for more than half an hour while dozens of people waited for cabs that did not materialize.  Was this airport purgatory?  Or had time slowed – turning a New York minute into a New York hour?

    The disgruntled workers finally moved on.  A few people waiting in line wandered away looking for better transportation prospects elsewhere.  Others began a migration to the Sky Train.  After some more time passed a few cabs began to trickle in and take away the remaining passengers.  I finally got a cab, but by then it was rush hour, so I spent another hour stuck in traffic.  I had left Berlin Tegel, an old airport already set to be closed down when a new and larger airport opens, but Tegel remains well-organized and is still properly maintained.  I had arrived at JFK, a critical international hub that is certainly not slated for closure and is in fact forever dealing with increased air traffic, but a place, however storied, that is allowed to slowly collapse before our eyes.

    The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is responsible for maintaining JFK struggles with limited resources to keep nearly fifty million passengers and over one million tons of air cargo moving every year.  Dependent on the revenue generated from fees, tolls, and rents, the Port Authority is tied to the unreliable economics of the long struggling airline industry.  Impressively, the Port Authority recently completed a four month total rebuild and expansion of the longest and busiest runway at JFK to help reduce delays and maintenance costs.  Despite the complete shut down of this main runway, the total number of flight delays did not increase significantly during the course of construction and the work was even completed slightly ahead of schedule.  A take-off reservation system to allocate departure slots, which was put in place during construction, was so successful that it remains in place.  Departure metering has not eliminated delays, but it does allow passengers to wait in the terminal rather than being stuck on the tarmac; and it also reduces fuel and maintenance costs for the airlines.

    Flight delays at JFK before the runway upgrade and implementation of metering averaged more than an hour with one in five planes being late.  Hopefully things will now improve, but delays will likely remain unacceptably high simply do to the volume of traffic.  Another relatively minor, but still inexcusable example of JFK’s overstressed infrastructure is the partial flooding of the international terminal that occurred during a recent heavy downpour.  More obviously needs to be done.  Proving that a major upgrade can be completed without significantly impacting current passenger and cargo transportation, the current management of the Port Authority should be rewarded with more funding to not only repair or replace those things that desperately need it, but to undertake strategic improvements to transform JFK into a world-class gateway now and into the future.

    It’s worth noting that of the more than $350 million spent on the runway project a meager $15 million was from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Since the airlines are not generating enough revenue and input from taxes scarce, where might the money come from for executing long-term projects that can significantly improve both the aesthetics and efficiency of JFK?  The Port Authority and the airlines can not do it alone.  It will require commitments in the form of public-private partnerships specifically set-up to revolutionize JFK.  Political, business, and community leaders as well as the public all have an interest and should all be involved, because JFK is not just an airport that generates revenue and jobs locally, regionally, and nationally; it is a catalyst for the interchange of people and ideas that benefits everyone.  As a symbol of a proud nation and one that commemorates a slain president, JFK Airport should receive the care and vision it deserves.  JFK should once again be what it once was – an inviting and dynamic entry through which we greet the world.

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