New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport has, in the decades since it first opened, meant many things to many people. Most airports provoke simply by existing but without them, the world would be smaller place. As obvious as that may be, it is still a feature of life that airports are perceived – with some justification – as being noisy necessities.
(All images TWA Hotel/David Mitchell)
From the day the first aircraft landed at the airport (using a still incomplete runway system at the time) JFK has been one of the most hailed and yet ultimately despised airports in the world. When construction first began it was still some distance from residential areas, but the open spaces around it was quickly taken up by the fast-spreading city the airport was to serve. So it has always had a noise problem. Not so much when first envisaged since the airport was designed for the early post-war propeller airliners of the era, like the esoteric Lockheed Constellation, and the more prosaic Douglas DC-4 and DC-6. Quiet they were not but the sounds emitted were little or nothing compared to what followed them
The original designs for JFK’s terminals were superseded by a unique concept of individual terminals, built and paid for by the airlines that used them. Called ‘Terminal City’, American, Braniff, Eastern, Northwest, Northeast, United and, eventually, BOAC/British Airways (the only non-US airline to have its own), had their own buildings located around the oval of dual taxiways that surrounded the central terminal area. All were of fairly standard design, boxlike in their shape although each had features unique to the airlines that commissioned them but three of the terminals rather broke the mould.
The first was the International Arrivals Building, the IAB. Opened in 1957, in its day it was the airport’s showpiece, and included one of the finest restaurants in the greater New York area. The roof provided an immense area for watching and photographing the aircraft of the world’s airlines as they came and went. The IAB was often referred to as the ‘sine qua non’ of airport architecture but even it was overshadowed by the two terminals either side of it.
To the right of the IAB (as one faced it from the landside) was Pan American’s terminal, a unique, glass-walled rotunda with an overhanging roof under which aircraft parked, shielding passengers from inclement weather. The airport’s real gem however, was on the other side of the IAB.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) commissioned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to design their terminal and his creation has been described as a poem in concrete. Built to resemble a giant eagle in flight, the terminal’s swooping, vaulted roof swept over its users, with not a straight line to be found anywhere. The TWA terminal at JFK was and remains the most unique airport passenger facility in the world. It did however, share one problem in common with every other terminal – it was too small.
Like many airports around the world, the arrival of jet aircraft heralded a new era and one that had repercussions for JFK, and indeed every airport. With both the terminals and runway system meant for the smaller propeller-engined aircraft of the post-war years, the airport quickly became crowded and generally ill-regarded by many. For international travellers its one-time showpiece the IAB, became a terminal to avoid, if possible – which of course it wasn’t if you needed to fly to or from New York from anywhere else around the world (by any airline other than British Airways, Pan Am or TWA). That JFK functioned at all is a testimony to the huge numbers of people that worked there, from air traffic controllers, airline staff and ground crews. The introduction of the Boeing 747, the Lockheed L1011 TriStar and the Douglas DC-10 made the cramped conditions even worse. Yet still JFK worked. Hundreds of thousands and more have flown into and out of it safely (although not necessarily on time). Viewing facilities for enthusiasts had long disappeared when, after fifty years in intense, non-stop use, redevelopment eventually began.
Despite the airport’s undoubted problems throughout the late 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, the TWA terminal still stood proud, its eye-catching design never duplicated. TWA themselves however did not and the airline, like Pan American, vanished into history. Pan Am’s terminal was taken over by Delta but it too became a part of the past when the airline moved into a new building that rose from the ashes of the IAB - The rotunda was demolished in 2013. Even though TWA themselves had gone, the now-unused terminal remained, preserved as a historically significant structure, its removal prohibited by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. What however, to do with it?
Various proposals came and went. The airside area in front of it was the largest aircraft parking area around the CTA and this was filled by a new terminal for Jet Blue and although the two ‘Flight Wings’, as TWA called the satellites that actually served the aircraft were swept away, the pair of long tubes that led from the terminal itself to them also remained, although coming to a halt just before Jet Blue’s brand new facility.
JFK lacked two things found at many other airports; the first was an on-airport hotel within the CTA and thus close to the terminals and the second was the complete absence of anywhere to watch airliners. The new International building does have an internal viewing area but for passengers only (there is also a similar facility at Heathrow’s Terminal 4). But it was the missing hotel that changed things, and for the better at JFK.
Just opened (May 15, 2019) is the TWA hotel, which has remained faithful to Eero Saarinen’s design throughout with his building the centrepiece of the new facility. Two new wings either side of the terminal now house 512 ultra-quiet guestrooms and 1962 aesthetics have been used throughout the hotel (the terminal originally opened that year). Six restaurants and eight bars are available and a Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner has been repurposed as a cocktail lounge and positioned on the tarmac between the hotel and the Terminal 5 Museum, which focuses on the Jet Age and the mid-century modern design movement. The hotel is connected to all of the airport’s terminals by the AirTrain service and the two tubes are still there, now linking directly to Jet Blue’s Terminal 5. Inside the centre of the former TWA terminal even the Solari split-flap departures board with its original mechanical operation is still in use, now indicating all departures instead of only those of its original airline.
From the enthusiasts point of view however is the piece-de-la-resistance: a 10,000-square-foot observation deck overlooking runway 4L/22R, complete with a Rooftop pool.
JFK has overcome numerous problems over the years, some not found at other airports, but today, with new terminals and its new hotel, it is about to undergo further redevelopment, and as it was in the past, will again be a place to visit in its own right.
A further feature on the hotel itself will be coming soon, along with an in-depth look at John F. Kennedy International Airport and its continuing redevelopment.
© Kevan James 2019.
Are you planning on visiting JFK some time soon? Get in touch and let us know – we would love to hear about your experience at the airport.
Use the get-in-touch form at the bottom of the home page.