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JFK Rising

New York! It has a ring to it, possibly like nowhere else. The City of New York lies on the north-east coast of the United States and despite it not being the closest major US city to Europe (that honour lies with Boston) it is today and always has been the traditional gateway to America.

Manhattan Island is the part of New York that mostly springs to mind and it is the centre of the city that features in almost every PR picture; the Empire State Building, once the world’s tallest; The Chrysler Building, the vaulted architecture of its spire stretching skywards. Just two of what sometimes seems like impossibly tall structures bringing the sky closer. With space always limited

Above left: JFK's control tower (Eheik)

Below left: A Big Welcome (Martin St Amant

on Manhattan the only way to expand was up and New York has been doing just that for longer than anywhere – it truly is the home of the skyscraper.

That same vista could be seen from a small outcrop of land in the bay, south of Manhattan and almost in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island was once the first port of call for countless numbers of immigrants after a lengthy sea journey as the ship sailed through the Verazzano Narrows and docked at the island. Even as far back as the start of the 1900s, those immigrants could see the towering buildings of their new home across the waters of the bay.

The buildings have changed since those times, although even taller today, and Liberty still stands. Ellis Island closed decades ago, overtaken by numbers and the pace of technology. Today, and as it has been for the last sixty years, New York is served by three primary airports; the first however, is not actually in New York. Newark Liberty International was the first to properly serve the area but it is in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. At the time of Fiorello La Guardia’s term as Mayor of New York, when he flew into the city he called home, his flight landed at Newark. The Mayor then demanded to be flown to New York, since he had paid to fly to New York - not Newark.

There was at one time, some occasionally intense rivalry between Newark and New York, a rivalry that was only settled during World War I, when the port’s inadequate facilities were exposed by the movement of thousands of US troops bound for Europe. The result was the formation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the PANYNJ). As well as its docks and harbours, the PANYNJ became responsible for the airports that served the metropolitan area.

Mayor La Guardia’s disquiet at having to use Newark was settled when the airport that was to be named after him, La Guardia (LGA), was opened in 1939. Just eight miles from the centre of Manhattan, LGA however proved to be too small very quickly and within four years of its opening, the Mayor over saw the start of a giant new airport to serve New York.

First known as Idlewild, the plans were impressive and for the era, the airport was indeed huge. A tangential system of eight runways was to surround a central terminal area (the CTA) accessed by a dual series of taxiways in an oval shape. Mayor La Guardia was not, rather unfortunately, a man for detail and having come up with a grand idea, tended to leave exact planning to others. Despite his lack of attention to the finer aspects, La Guardia wanted his city to have a world-class gateway. Construction of Idlewild, or IDL, began in 1942 with much of the land reclaimed from the waters of Jamaica Bay. Building the runways, once the land had been filled, went on even before the design of terminals had started and groundwork was put in place for the oval of taxiways. The CTA was to be reached by the Van Wyck Expressway, a wide, sweeping curve of highway that brought road users into the CTA from the southwest. Brought them to what though? Even though there were runways and hangars, there were still no final terminal designs.

Given the constraints of wartime, the ongoing construction of IDL soon became beyond the City of New York itself and the entire project was turned over to the PANYNJ. The land was leased by the city to the authority on June 1, 1947 and commercial flights began from temporary facilities on the north-east face of the oval on July 9, 1948. To build terminals still required hard cash so the PANYNJ leased the land around the oval of taxiways to individual airlines, who would build their own, each different, each reflecting the needs and aspirations of the airlines concerned. A ‘Terminal City’ would rise, described as ‘jewels in a necklace’, with its centrepiece the one terminal the port authority would own and operate.

Idlewild in 1962 (PANYNJ via Marnix Groot/

Immediately in front of this terminal rose the airport administration block with the control tower at the top and the new building before it was to be called the International Arrivals Building, the IAB for short. With magnificent archway as the main entrance, the IAB was to house foreign airlines using IDL and around the necklace were built the terminals for those US airlines that took out leases. As one drove into the CTA along the Van Wyck, on the left was United Airlines, then American, with what was at the time the world’s largest stained-glass window as its frontage. On the other side of the Van Wyck as one entered the CTA was Eastern Airlines. These buildings were essentially little different in form, a box-like shape with two piers extending out on to the apron. Internally of course they were as individual as the airlines themselves but to the casual observer, American’s stained-glass frontage excepted, they were of their time and built with practicality – financial and otherwise – in mind. Nevertheless, the CTA was a landscaped oasis of gardens and ornamental water features.

Idlewild’s masterpiece was supposed to be the IAB, with its majestic arch but either side of it rose the two terminals that came to define New York’s primary international airport. On the left, TWA commissioned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to design their terminal. Often called a Poem in Concrete, Saarinen’s design resembled a giant Eagle swooping on to the ground. On the other side of the IAB was Pan Am’s terminal, a glass-walled rotunda with an overhanging roof, high enough for aircraft to park underneath. As IDL’s biggest users, it was perhaps fitting that the two terminals, more perhaps than the others, reflected the future as well as the two carrier’s worldwide route networks.

The construction of these two terminals left space for three more, one between Pan Am and Eastern for Braniff and Northwest, a shoebox-shaped building with no piers, the aircraft nosing in directly to the terminal and on the other side of the oval, next to TWA, a terminal for National Airlines. On its left, on the site of the former US Post Office building, the only non-US airline to have its own facility, the British Overseas Airways Corporation – BOAC – built its terminal. Still a boxy shape, its clean, white lines contrasted sharply with the others on the CTA, including TWA and Pan Am.

There were however, problems. Even as the oval of taxiways was being laid, once the airlines became responsible for their terminals, the airport’s layout had to be changed, then changed again. Originally designed for the smaller propeller-powered airliners of the 1940s and 1950s, with the onset of big jets like the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 (and BOAC’s VC10s) the taxiway oval was too small. Consequently they were moved outwards so the terminals could be larger. Already built concrete was overlaid with asphalt and the airport quickly became a patchwork quilt of rebuilt and re-laid operational areas. Of the seven runways originally pointing outwards from the CTA, two were never commissioned – the space was needed for aircraft parking and one of them formed the primary taxiway to newly built cargo areas.

The airport was renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 24, 1963, in memory of the nation’s 35th president and the three-letter code became JFK (the first incantation of this was KIA, for Kennedy International Airport but the moniker had some rather unfortunate connotations with the US involvement in Vietnam so it was changed)

JFK today (Brandon Van Acker)

Freight mushroomed at JFK and the cargo terminals gained a notorious reputation for theft and mafia-led scams. With the arrival of the Boeing 747, quickly followed by the Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L1011 TriStar, the pressure grew even more. The landscaped gardens gave way to more tarmac and car-parking and the terminals redeveloped and enlarged still more to accommodate the new wide-bodied airliners.

The 1970s were not kind to the airport and it became overcrowded, difficult to use and flights were often late. The Van Wyck Expressway became infamous for being the opposite, seemingly traffic-clogged permanently. Money had always been an issue for Fiorello La Guardia and so it proved with his vision of a world-class gateway to serve New York. The city itself faced bankruptcy at one point but still the numbers passing through the airport continued to grow. JFK covers 4,930 acres, including 880 acres in the Central Terminal Area. The question was, how best to use that area, improve access, and handle the financial implications of what had become desperately needed new terminals?

1991 proved to be a watershed year. In January Eastern Airlines went out of existence and by December, Pan Am followed them into the history books. Eastern’s terminal became the first to go, replaced by a more astutely-designed and thus bigger facility for The Terminal One Group, a consortium of airlines – Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, and Lufthansa. Delta took over Pan Am’s terminal and, having overcome their own problems, demolished it in 2013, moving all their international flights into a brand new, state-of-the-art replacement next door, built on the site of the IAB.

Opened in 1957, the IAB was the sine qua non of airport terminals in its heyday but after thirty years of intensive use, had become something of an embarrassment, not only to New York but to the USA. Constructing the new terminal was an art in itself as it had to be built around the IAB as parts of the older terminal remained in use. Now known simply as Terminal 4, the 1.5-million-square-foot, international Terminal opened in May 2001 and was expanded by Delta Air Lines with nine new gates, and other enhancements and amenities, opening in 2013 as the airline vacated the former Pan Am building.

Below: Delta's flights now operate from T4. Opposite left is the open space where once stood the Pan American Worldport (Mark Nakasone)

With United moving across the CTA to share with British Airways, American Airlines came next. The massive stained-glass window also passed into history as the two original buildings were replaced by a single new terminal for American.

What of TWA? When Pan Am bought National Airlines, the two carrier’s operations were merged into Pan Am’s terminal and TWA took over National’s building in addition to their existing one. TWA themselves were subsequently absorbed into American Airlines and both terminals remained unused – they simply were not up to the volumes of modern-day air transport.

National’s former building was demolished but Saarinen’s artistry had to stay as it had a preservation order applied to it. The two satellites that actually served the aircraft did not however and with their demolition, along came the new kid on the block.

Low fare airlines tend to stay away from big airports and big competition on the basis that their business model means not taking on the big boys Numerous small airlines have come and gone having tried – unsuccessfully – to compete on level terms. Jet Blue however, broke every rule there was. Not only were they to be a low fare carrier, but they were also one of, if not the, most well-funded start-ups in airline history. It gave them the cash to compete head on with anybody and they chose JFK as the centre of their operations.

Below: Terminals 6 and 7, used by JetBlue and British Airways (Hakilon)

The decision raised eyebrows given that JFK at the time was poorly regarded and conventional wisdom had it that anybody trying to start operating there was doomed. Jet Blue however took no notice and did have one advantage; the empty former National terminal. With a scale of operations much smaller (to begin with) than either National or TWA, it meant that they could use the space more effectively. The airline then went one better and in the space created in front of the Saarinen-designed TWA terminal by the disappearance of the satellites, built an entirely new facility for their exclusive use. Jet Blue are now one of JFK’s biggest airlines and one of the most successful in the world.

By the end of 2018, New York’s primary gateway now had terminals fit for purpose, up to date, bright, airy and more spacious than those which preceded them. Only two of the airport’s original ‘Terminal City’ buildings still stand; the one built for Braniff and Northwest, then used by Pan Am for domestic flights and currently used by Delta for the same purpose. The other is British Airways’ white box. Both however, are soon to depart.

In October 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $13 billion investment to transform JFK. The redeveloped airport will be anchored by two new world-class international terminal complexes on the airport’s north and south sides. The first new gates will go live in 2023 with projected completion in 2025. The existing American Airlines terminal remains as part of the new developments and British Airways will move out of their existing building to share with their One World airline partner. On the southern side of the CTA, the existing Terminal 1 (used by The Terminal One Group) will also go, making it one of the shortest-lived terminals ever built. Delta’s domestic building next to it, currently the oldest still in use as it pre-dates BOAC/British Airways, will also finally bite the dust. When finished, JFK will no longer have separate terminals but a series of interlinked buildings that will be larger, making better use of the space available and be a world away from the JFK of old. Not only terminals have been or will be rebuilt however.

Left: Governor Andrew Cuomo announces the JFK redevelopment programme (PANYNJ)

The Port Authority invested $200 million for taxiway and airside rehabilitation to prepare for the Airbus A380 aircraft, and more than $150 million was dedicated to fund technical and customer service initiatives to combat airport delays. Between 2010 and 2015, the Port Authority further invested nearly $600 million to completely rebuild two of JFK’s runways, 13R-31L (Bay Runway) and 4L-22R.

Both runways were reconstructed in concrete and were widened from a 150- to 200-foot width to accommodate operations of Design Group VI Aircraft (like the A380), increase operational efficiencies, and enhance safety. The runways received new entrances for departing aircraft and new high-speed exits for landing aircraft, which enabled swifter departures and easier access from runways to terminal gates, saving time on the ground for all passengers at JFK.

Then in 2017, the Port Authority also spent $106 million to rehabilitate Runway 4R-22L. The project provided for rehabilitation of the runway pavement, replacement of electrical infrastructure, and realignment of certain taxiways to allow for faster runway exiting after landing and saving taxing time to terminal gates. Future work on the fourth runway, 13L-31R, and several taxiway rehabilitation projects will continue as part of the airport’s efforts to enhance the operational efficiencies of the airport.

Above: JFK's terminal redevelopment illustration and British Airways will move into American's T8 (PANYNJ)

It may have taken a long time but the John F. Kennedy International Airport of today and tomorrow will not only be a vast improvement on what has preceded it but it will be an airport that will be a pleasure to use. Those with long memories will no doubt miss Terminal City, with some justification perhaps, but regular fliers into JFK probably less so. New York will finally have its world-class gateway.

Oh, and the TWA terminal is still standing – its now the central part of a new on-airport hotel (see related article under Aviation News)

Left: Even today it is still possible to evoke the echoes of the past at the TWA Hotel (Ealevrontas)


• Terminal 1: The Terminal One Group, a consortium of airlines – Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, and Lufthansa – built the 10-gate international Terminal 1 on the site of the old Eastern Airlines Terminal. It opened in 1998.

• Terminal 2: Delta Air Lines operates Terminal 2 with 10 gates. Delta vacated Terminal 3 when the newly expanded Terminal 4 opened in May 2013. After 50 years of service to JFK, Terminal 3 was demolished. Terminal 3 ramp is now used as a remote parking area for 15 aircraft.

• Terminal 4: The 1.5-million-square-foot, Terminal 4, used by most foreign airlines, opened in May 2001 and contains 36 gates. Terminal 4 includes separate levels for departures and arrivals, consolidated ticketing and baggage operations, improved customer facilities, duty-free retail shops, and a wide variety of eateries. Delta Air Lines redeveloped a portion of the terminal by adding nine new gates, and other enhancements and amenities, which opened in 2013.

• Terminal 5: Jet Blue’s Terminal 5 opened in 2008. The Port Authority provided nearly $800 million toward the jointly financed, 29-gate, 635,000-square-foot terminal, which is designed to handle up to 20 million passengers per year. In 2012, Jet Blue broke ground on T5i, a 145,000-square-foot expansion to accommodate the airline’s international services. The project was completed at the end of 2014.

• Terminal 7: A $251 million redevelopment project was completed at British Airways’ Terminal 7. The project expanded and reconfigured the terminal for greater efficiency. Improvements included new ticketing and check-in areas, new retail outlets, and a new departure and arrival roadway system. Terminal 7 contains 12 gates.

• Terminal 8: American Airlines’ $1.2 billion transformation of Terminal 8 opened in 2007 and serves domestic and international passengers on three concourses with 34 gates. Terminal 8 includes expanded check-in areas, top name-brand shops and eateries, and numerous services.

Left: Terminal 1 (Eric Salard)


Opened in 2003, the light-rail system connects JFK with the Long Island Rail Road and New York City subway and bus lines. More than 8.2 million paid passengers used the system in 2018, and about 12.4 million more rode the free portion of the system to connect between terminals, and to parking and car rental areas. Recent improvements include digital signage, expanded closed-circuit television, upgraded access control security systems and improved customer communications on-board and in stations.


JFK is one of the world’s leading international air cargo centres. The airport offers nearly 4 million square feet of modern, state-of-the-art cargo warehouse and office space. The entire air cargo area is designated as a Foreign-Trade Zone. JFK serves the world’s key air cargo markets through a strong mix of long-haul, direct and non stop all-cargo aircraft and wide-body passenger aircraft flights.


• JFK’s runway system consists of two pairs of parallel runways (4L-22R, 4R-22L and 13L-31R, 13R-31L) aligned at right angles. Total runway length is over nine miles.

• Two out of the airport’s four runways were constructed in concrete.

• Three out of the airport’s four runways are 200 feet wide to accommodate Aircraft Design Group VI aircraft.

• All runways have high-intensity runway edge lighting, centre line and taxiway exit lighting, and are grooved to improve skid resistance and minimize hydroplaning.

• Taxiways total approximately 45 miles in length with widths of 75 feet or 82 feet. There are shoulders and erosion control pavements on each side of the taxiways. Other features include the taxiway centre line light system and a sign system, illuminated at night to provide directional information for taxiing aircraft.


The 321-foot air traffic control tower opened in 1994 and includes communications, radar, and wind shear alert systems.


The Port Authority completed $20 million in restoration and preservation measures for JFK’s historic TWA Flight Centre in advance of an adaptive re-use redevelopment program, which created hotel space and related services in the Central Terminal Area. The 512-room hotel opened in May 2019.

Above: T5 (Acroterion)

© Kevan James 2019.

With additional information courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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