A New York redemption story

Likened to ‘third-world’ countries by presidential nominee Joe Biden and nicknamed ‘LaGarbage’ by its long-suffering passengers, LaGuardia Airport is in the midst of a billion dollar makeover. Chris Sloan pays a visit

As this aerial view shows, Queens county, New York, offers only limited opprtunities for LaGuardia airport to expand outward
Patrick Handrigan

If I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you’d think, ‘I must be in some third-world country,’” then-US Vice President Joe Biden said in 2014.

The current presidential nominee isn’t alone in his criticism of New York’s third airport, which has long been nicknamed ‘LaGarbage’. The site has been rated at the bottom of US airports by customers and reviewers alike. In 2012, a survey by Travel & Leisure magazine placed LaGuardia (IATA: LGA) as the US’s worst airport, stating it had the “dubious honour of ranking the worst for the check-in and security process, the worst for baggage handling, the worst when it comes to providing Wi-Fi, the worst at staff communication, and the worst design and cleanliness”. An inauspicious distinction for the 20th busiest airport in the country and one that a record 31,084,894 passengers endured in 2019. 

Aiming to go from zero to hero, LaGuardia is in the midst of a metamorphosis from ‘LaGarbage’ to ‘LaGorgeous’ with an US$8bn rebuild befitting its status as one of the Big Apple’s major gateways. It is one of the largest public-private partnerships in aviation history – and the front door to the selfproclaimed ‘Greatest City on Earth’. The all-new 2.7m sq ft, six-concourse, 72-gate complex is rising from the replacement of every current terminal except for the 1939-built, art deco Marine Air Terminal A – placed on the National Register of Historic Places (equivalent to receiving listed status in the UK) in 1982.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo opening Terminal B’s eastern concourse 

Bright Start 

LaGuardia wasn’t always considered the armpit of airports. When it opened in the borough of Queens in 1939 as New York Municipal Airport, it was the first commercially successful airport in New York City. The airport was described as ‘the air gateway to America’ and ‘the crossroads of the world’. Up to that point, Newark Airport in New Jersey had been the primary commercial airport for NYC. Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn had only limited use for airline traffic.

American Airlines was instrumental in the development of the new airport, where it established the world’s first airline lounge, the original Admiral’s Club. Pan American Airways, United Airlines, Eastern Airlines and Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA, later Trans World Airlines), also committed to the new airport at opening. Pan Am’s Boeing 314 Clipper flying boats crisscrossed the Atlantic to Europe from the Marine Air Terminal beginning in 1940, with transatlantic landplane flights starting in the middle of the decade. Until Idlewild Airport (now JFK) opened in 1948, LaGuardia was the international gateway to New York. However, for the last 36 years it has been subject to a perimeter rule banning nonstop flights to cities more than 1,500 miles (2,400 km) away (with the exception of Denver) so direct services to the West Coast have been and remain out of range. 

In 1953, the airport was posthumously renamed after former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had championed the airport’s creation during his 1934-1945 term. By then, LGA had cemented its status as New York City’s preferred airport with its proximity to most boroughs of the city. 

Over the next few years, despite its very small 680-acre footprint (Denver is 35,000 acres by comparison) and being hemmed in by Bowery Bay and Flushing Bay, the airport’s traffic grew exponentially. To accommodate the rapid growth, The Central Terminal Building (CTB Terminal B) opened in 1964 just in time for the New York World’s Fair. The US$36m four-storey, four-concourse facility was groundbreaking for the time. Over the years, the terminal – which accounts for more than half the airport’s capacity – became increasingly overcrowded and exemplified its rundown reputation. 

Delta Air Lines opened its US$90m Terminal D in 1983 – the first capable of accommodating widebody aircraft at LaGuardia. Yes, twin-aisle jets up to and including Airbus A300s, McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and Lockheed L-1011 TriStars were once common sights at LaGuardia until the 1990s. The last major terminal development concluded in 1992, when USAir inaugurated its 300,000 sq ft, 22-gate, US$250m Terminal C. 

Historically, the facility’s most enduring milestone was the creation of the world’s first high-frequency air shuttle with the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle on April 30, 1961. Originally the carrier’s Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellations departed LaGuardia for Washington/National and Boston/ Logan every two hours from 8am until 10pm. This evolved into Trump Shuttle, then USAir Shuttle and is now operated by American Airlines, with hourly flights operated by Embraer E175s, Airbus A319s and Boeing 737s.

Big Apple, big ideas 

Current New York governor Andrew Cuomo took Joe Biden’s ‘third world’ comments personally. Speaking to the New York Times, he said: “[Biden] could have phrased it a little differently, but he was right. We are better than what LaGuardia is.” Cuomo agreed the time had come for change, adopting the New LGA as his pet project and indeed his legacy. 

In 2015, he commissioned a sevenmember Airport Advisory Panel chaired by successful developer Dan Tishman to advise him and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the modernisation of LaGuardia and JFK airports. The panel’s request for proposals would lead to a masterplan design competition for redeveloping both airports for the 21st century. Six designs competed for the three finalist positions, which would each receive US$250,000 for their concepts. 

The panel submitted its Guiding Principles for a Comprehensive Airport Master Plan. In a letter to Governor Cuomo, Tishman wrote: “Our recommendations were inspired by your charge to not just remodel or rebuild the existing facilities. We focused on a comprehensive vision for the airport that has been lacking over the decades of its prior development. We put a focus on putting passengers first and improving their experience, starting with how they get to the airport. We also put an emphasis on how a new, modern airport can be a good neighbour to the people of Queens by reducing traffic and expanding job opportunities.”

Our recommendations were inspired by the charge to not just remodel or rebuild the existing facilities. We focused on a comprehensive vision for the airport that has been lacking in its prior development

Dan Tishman LaGuardia Airport Advisory Panel

The recommendations included:

LaGuardia should look and feel like a single, unified terminal to form a complete, efficient and appealing experience for passengers, with a consistent aesthetically pleasing facade worthy of a world-class airport serving one of the world’s premier cities.

It should be an ‘airport of tomorrow’ that embraces cutting-edge technology and includes best-in-class amenities.

Terminal B should be demolished and Terminals C and D redeveloped.

The new terminal should be built 600ft closer to the Grand Central Parkway to create nearly two miles of additional aircraft taxiways for better aircraft movement, reducing delays and adopting an island-gate system that would boost taxiway circulation from 4,594 feet/0.9 miles to 11,026 feet / 2.1 miles, twice as much space as the existing terminal.

A number of alternative uses for the historic Marine Air Terminal (MAT) were contemplated, such as a new museum, but it was concluded that the terminal should remain an active aviation facility in light of LaGuardia’s limited footprint and the anticipated increase in passengers. Formerly the domain of the Delta Shuttle, JetBlue took over The MAT in 2017.

Addition of a boutique hotel and conference facilities.

LaGuardia is the only major east coast airport lacking direct rail links and road traffic delays on extreme travel days have increased fivefold since 2014. To solve this, an AirTrain connecting the airport to the Long Island Railroad and NYC Subway for a 30-minute journey into Midtown Manhattan was put forward. Also, under consideration is a ferry service to the Marine Air Terminal and, if feasible, to the east end of the airport.

Improved road configuration that will reduce congestion on the surrounding roadway network, including the Grand Central Parkway and residential streets. 

In short, LaGuardia was to become a sustainable and resilient airport that minimised energy consumption, reduced harmful emissions and protected critical infrastructure to keep the airport operational during a flood event such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which immersed the entire tarmac. 

Setting the bar even higher, flight operations and passenger volume could not be impacted during the redevelopment. The new airport would be built on the footprint of what it was replacing. Even during construction, LaGuardia continued to set new records for passenger volume. Eight of the airport’s 12 busiest days on record occurred in the summer of 2019.

Perfect partners 

To fund the US$8bn project, a publicprivate partnership was created. LaGuardia Gateway Partners (LGP) and Delta Air Lines are privately financing two-thirds of the redevelopment’s costs and the Port Authority is coughing up the remainder, most of it for eight miles of new roadways and 20 bridges. 

LGP is responsible for the 1.3m sq ft redevelopment of Terminal B, valued at US$5.1bn (including US$4bn in construction value). This is one of the largest public-private partnerships in American history and the largest in US aviation. LGP is composed of Vantage Airport Group, Skanska, Meridiam, and JLC Infrastructure for development and equity investment. Vantage Airport Group leads the redevelopment programme and management of Terminal B. They have a current portfolio of ten airports worldwide, including Chicago Midway and Nassau, Bahamas. Skanska-Walsh is the design build joint venture, with HOK and WSP. LGP’s lease with the Port Authority runs through to 2050. 

Stewart Steeves, CEO of LaGuardia Gateway Partners, said: “We believe LGP was chosen for the project because of the experience of our partners and the approach we developed to ensure we deliver a world-class airport on time and on budget – all while ensuring the integrity of the operation of the original terminal during construction.” 

The Terminal B departures hall, as seen from the escalator 
LaGuardia Gateway Partners
Ground being broken on Delta Air Lines’ new Terminal C in August 2017 

Building the new LGA began in Spring 2016 with the Terminal B Parking Garage. It has seven levels, totalling 1,143,540 sq ft of parking area, with 3,129 parking spaces. The garage opened in 2018. 

When completed, 40,000 tons of steel will have been used to construct the new terminal. The arrivals and departure hall alone is made up of almost 10,000 pieces of steel weighing in at around 12,000 tons – more than the weight of the Eiffel Tower. 

Delta is the top carrier at LGA by every metric, operating more than 275 peak day departures from its LGA hub prior to COVID-19. The Atlanta, Georgia-based carrier is also the only airline with its own exclusive terminals: C and D. The new Terminal C will consolidate Delta’s presence under one roof. 

The airline’s in-house construction team is responsible for the design and building of the new US$4bn Terminal C, with the first earth being lifted in August 2017. The drastic slowdown in air travel resulting from COVID-19 has afforded Delta the opportunity to accelerate construction. 

Ryan Marzullo, managing director of NY construction for Delta, explained: “The near-and medium-term reduction in flying is providing us with access to both landside real estate (such as roads), as well as airside real estate (gates and taxiways) that aren’t being used, allowing us to accelerate portions of the programme without impacting operations. We are refining options that will deliver the programme anywhere from six to 24 months earlier than originally planned while also reducing construction costs.”

Paradigm shift 

The analogy of rebuilding a Formula One car in the middle of a race is apt. Due to space constraints, it was impossible to make the switch from old to new so the ‘New LGA’ began opening in phases from 2018. It will continue through to late 2021 with old concourses being progressively replaced by new ones in stages. This upgrade is a work in progress and is far from a seamless experience. Currently, the airport is a confusing labyrinth of old meets new, both inside the terminals and on the surrounding roads. 

On December 1, 2018, Terminal B’s Eastern Concourse became the first part of the new facility to open to the public. Five airlines operate out of the terminal: Air Canada, American, Southwest and United. When opened, 11 of 35 common use gates were operational, but this grew to 18 on June 2, 2019, when United relocated most of its operations to the new concourse. Its counterpart, the Western Concourse, is set to open in two phases beginning this summer. 

“There really is no comparison between the original facility and Terminal B. The new [facility] was designed with the passenger experience in mind,” says a proud Stewart Steeves, CEO of LGP. 

Arriving and departing passengers would be excused for thinking they were at the wrong airport. It boasts 55ft floor-to-ceiling windows radiating natural light with panoramic views of Manhattan, a park area with its own greenery inspired by New York’s public parks and a children’s play area with a nostalgic nod to LGA’s 1964 air traffic control tower. Amenities include spacious and stylish gate seating, charging stations, free high-speed Wi-Fi, water refill stations and sparkling-clean restrooms, while two lounges – Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Club and the new United Club – are located on the upper level. 

The dismal array of retail and dining options for which the airport was known has vanished. In its place stands best-in-class retail, food and beverage concessionaires with a decidedly local New York inspired flair. 

A children’s play area in the Eastern Concourse takes its inspiration from LaGuardia’s air traffic control tower and ground support vehicles 
LaGuardia Gateway Partners

The improvements don’t stop there. Nothing at LGA attracted more scorn than the old central terminal building’s arrivals and departures hall. It looked state of the art… for 1977. Terminal B’s new 850,000 sq ft, four-level arrivals and departures hall opened on June 13, 2020, as the second completed phase. Located on level three, the ticketing hall makes an awe-inspiring first appearance. It has four check-in islands with 75 counters and 150 self-service counters.

A glass atrium with a Public Art Fundcommissioned sculpture by Sarah Sze is the centrepiece of this breathtaking new hall. Title Shorter than the Day, Sze’s huge, spherical sculpture incorporates hundreds of photographs of the sky over New York and is one of four original pieces of art commissioned by LGP for the new facility, to convey a sense of space. 

Level two is the arrivals hall, which boasts nine carousels and two oversize baggage belts. The 3½ mile-long baggage handling system can move up to 3,250 bags per hour. Handily, level two is also connected to the parking garage and is the pick-up location for private and for-hirevehicles, while the first floor offers access to shuttles and buses. 

Endless choked security lines plagued the old LGA. The new site features 16 designated security lanes, while dynamic signage in the transportation security administration (TSA) queue displays passenger wait times and allows queue zones to be adjusted based on passenger demand. Passengers with carry-on baggage will notice a new automated bin sequencing and retrieval system as they go through the TSA check point. Security includes three state-of-the-art technology systems to expedite screening while prioritising safety. Checked baggage is screened more efficiently using an artificial intelligence-based system that quickly troubleshoots and diverts highrisk baggage for secondary inspection. A spacious post-checkpoint re-composure area is a welcome addition. 

Sarah Sze’s installation, Shorter Than the Day, is one of four Public Arts Fundcommissioned artworks on display at the new facility 
LaGuardia Gateway Partners 

Post-security, passengers ascend an escalator to level four with its abundant concessions and which will eventually include an outdoor terrace. The headhouse is connected to the twoairside island concourses via dual 430ft pedestrian bridges. With a peak height of 97ft above the taxiway, even an Airbus A380 could easily pass underneath, although it’s unlikely that the super jumbo will ever visit LGA. This innovative approach has allowed the original building to remain operational during construction and will help alleviate the chronic congestion on the airfield. When the western bridge opens in 2021, LGA will be the only airport in the world to have dual pedestrian bridges. 

Once airside, travellers are treated to an extensive view of the new concourses as they descend escalators to the gates.

Open for business 

As the first new terminal project to open during the pandemic, the dedication took place in the shadow of COVID-19 but Governor Cuomo was as proud as ever of his pet project: “The opening of the new arrivals and departures Hall at Terminal B is the biggest milestone to date in the transformation of LaGuardia Airport into a world-class transportation hub that is worthy of New York State.” 

The airport is taking extra precautions with person-to-person contact being reduced via plexiglass screens and physical distancing queue management. Sanitisation is being enhanced with electrostatic fogging equipment and increased cleaning. More hand sanitiser dispensers have been deployed and face coverings are mandatory. In keeping with the times, contactless food delivery has also been introduced.

The new 1 m sq ft terminal is not only passenger friendly, but kind to the environment too. Once completed, it will achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Rooftop solar panels augment the hot water supply. Even the baggage handling system is more energyefficient, consuming 37% less energy than comparable systems. Single-use plastic straws are prohibited in the new facility. 

Upon the final completion of the project with the Western Concourse in 2022, Terminal B will be able to comfortably handle more than 17.5m passengers per annum, double the current capacity.

Fortress Delta 

On November 16, 2019, the first phase of Delta Air Lines’ stunning, spacious 105,000 sq ft Terminal C opened initially to Delta Shuttle flights from the first seven gates on Concourse G. The carrier will eventually occupy 37 gates over four concourses. “We’ll complete 75% of construction by spring 2022, when we open the headhouse, new roadways and the second concourse, with half of the third concourse following quickly by summer 2022,” says Mr Mazullo. 

“We’re giving New York the gateway it deserves. Delta has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the years in renovating our existing terminals at LaGuardia, but they were built at a different time for different-sized aircraft and different passenger volumes. Now we’re replacing these facilities to truly benefit our customers, our employees, the city and the region.” 

When completed, the new, consolidated Terminal C will be abel to accommodate up to 14m passengers a year. 

Until then, departing and arriving passengers will continue to use the Terminal D check-in and baggage claim, connected to the new terminal via a temporary pedestrian walkway. 

The new Concourse G offers a glimpse of things to come for Delta’s LGA hub. With its location edging Flushing Bay, it features floor-to-ceiling views of Citi Field and the bay. The expanded new gate areas provide more seating, outlets for charging devices and respite nooks for passengers to rest and regroup. 

Delta’s new terminal has thoroughly embraced technology with “incorporated digital wayfinding signs to provide customer guidance, and added hearing loop technology in every hold room for those with impaired hearing”. On the ramp, pilots are employing a new visual docking guidance system that assists with aircraft parking and automatically positions passenger boarding bridges close to the aircraft. 

The new operation is powered by a 12-megawatt Con Edison substation, with all major electrical and mechanical equipment housed on the upper level to protect such systems from water/flood damage in the event of a major storm. The concourse also features an ecologically friendly ice-generation system that reduces electrical consumption at times of peak demand in the summer by creating ice at night, when energy demand is lower, and using it to cool the building during the day.

Planes, trains and automobiles 

As impressive as the shiny new bricks and mortar are, nothing will positively impact the passenger experience more than AirTrain rail route to connect passengers with the heart of Manhattan. 

Today, LGA passengers and employees depend on road-based vehicles for their trip to the airport. According to Governor Cuomo’s Airport Advisory Panel: “Nearly 90% of passengers arrive to the airport by private vehicle, 50% of LGA passengers are coming from or going to Manhattan; with more than 25% of all LGA passengers coming from or going to Midtown, while a mere 6% of LGA passengers take public transit in the form of one of five bus routes, none of which are direct from Midtown. Vehicular travel times between Midtown Manhattan and LGA vary greatly by day, with four-year taxi travel time data showing that travel times generally ranged between 35-80 minutes.” 

In October 2019, the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners formally authorised the US$2bn in funding needed to develop the new AirTrain LGA, pending completion of the FAA’s independent environmental review. 

When it comes to pass, AirTrain will connect LGA passengers to the Long Island Railroad’s Port Washington line or the MTA’s No. 7 line subway. The project includes building three new stations – two on-airport and one serving the two-rail Mets-Willets Point.Once up and running, it is estimated that 6-10 million passengers will access the AirTrain system via public transit each year. 

While Milton Glaser’s iconic I Love New York logo has spawned many derivatives, not once has anyone considered a LaGuardia-inspired alternative. But as a new era dawns for the Queens airport, love could indeed be in the air.

The airy gate area in the eastern concourse of the new Terminal B 
LaGuardia Gateway Partners