Monday, November 7th, 2011

How Bad Are New York's Airports?

A column that compares different aspects of New York City to cities elsewhere. For this installment, we asked Alexander Basek and Paul Brady to weigh in. Alexander is a co-founder of the travel planning service Fortnighter. Paul is an editor at Huffington Post Travel. They both could point out the differences between an Airbus 320 and a Boeing 737, but they won’t because you don’t care that much.

Paul: Before we get into the whole New York v. The World debate, shouldn't we talk about which one of the airports that serve New York best represents the city? A lot of people gloss over the fact that we're very lucky to have three airports within easy reach, even if they're all really horrible. We have triple the ability to fly far, far away from the hell gates that are EWR, JFK and LGA.

Alexander: Each of those airports is miserable in its own way. And as with unhappy families, you learn to live with the one that you're stuck with, in this case depending on a combination of location, affinity for airline mileage programs and ability to tolerate the fact that the Delta terminal at Kennedy is infested with pigeons.

That said, the upside of the NYC airport trifecta is that I have multiple options for getting home when things go pear-shaped, weather-wise, out in the great wide world. Then I'm happy to hear those pigeons cooing as I walk through the wafting scent of Cinnabon.

Paul: That Delta terminal is how I imagine the fall of Saigon. Only worse, since you're on a connecting flight to Atlanta, not an Air America chopper to safety.

All three of our airports offer their own exquisite misery, don't they? If we're going to rank them, though, we might as well use the classic tripartite classification system of F/M/K. Which are you killing off, and which best represents New York in the eyes of the world?

Alexander: I have yet to visit a worse airline terminal than the Delta Terminal at JFK. And I've been to Albania.

Here's how I see it: You kill Newark. Sorry, Newark, but you're in New Jersey. You're tangential to my existence, you don't even have New York City taxicabs waiting outside. Despite the presence of a Grand Central Oyster Bar there, there's an insulting quality in flying to Newark. It's even more insulting when there's a delay and you have to WAIT to fly to Newark.

You fuck JFK. It's got a lot of variety, what with all the international airlines. There are all sorts of strange comings and goings, and there are always problems, but for a fling, it's the way to go. Plus the JetBlue terminal is passable, and what's more New York than being stuck on the Van Wyck at three in the morning after a romp abroad?

I say, marry LaGuardia. You know what the problems are, but it’s quiet in the evenings, has a cool mural and is still the easiest to reach, all other things being equal. Ultimately, the approach up the East River, with Manhattan out the left side window, is one of the most beautiful in the world, every time.

Paul: We're completely in agreement about these, which is all the proof I need to declare them the ultimate New York City airport rankings. Also, there's something so wonderfully and anachronistically Jet Set about LaGuardia, with the art deco control tower and the “shuttle flights” and the tiny little terminals. If I'm going to be miserable at the airport, my suffering can at least be attended by a sense of longing for an era that was never as wonderful as we now remember it.

Alexander: I'm shocked! I expected someone to rise to the defense of Newark. It’s an airport safety school, some sort of aviation Brandeis. Perfectly fine, but you know that most of the people there would rather be elsewhere, except for the people who are happy to be there. And you have every right to be suspicious of those folks.

Your Jet Set bubble is lovely, but don't you find that it's burst when you leave New York (as one tends to do when utilizing a New York airport) to find that the rest of the world has ample services, easy rides to the city center and, in some cases, a Krispy Kreme? (Looking at you, Hong Kong.)

Paul: Do not underestimate the easy ride to the airport! While I admire your appreciation of being stuck on the Van Wyck at 3 a.m., there are so many better connections out there, which not only put LaGuardia to shame but also make travelers wonder whether they've moved not just through space but through time.

Reference Copenhagen's Kastrup airport, a facility that's served by commuter rail—with wifi, of course—that can take you from downtown’s Central Station to the check-in kiosks in about 15 minutes. A friend of mine bragged of going from his hotel to his gate, including clearing security, in under 30 minutes. The Danes truly live in the future.

Alexander: Obviously we're not going to win the one seat ride competition. The actual experience of arriving in New York is unpleasant from end to end, whether you're walking through a low-ceilinged corridor to customs, stuck in traffic or, even worse, on the A train. (Yes, yes, the LIRR, I know.) Part of me wonders if this isn't classic, New York-y it's-hard-to-live-here hubris, that our airports are obnoxious because everything else about living here is obnoxious and maybe we like it that way? Whereas, say, Kuala Lumpur's airport is far, far more pleasant than the experience of actually being in Kuala Lumpur.

Paul: An interesting thought, the microcosm of the city in an airport gateway. Singapore's airport, just down the road from KL, is exactly what you'd expect from a micromanaged nanny state. I think you and I would agree that Vancouver's airport is imminently British Columbian. And hello, Frankfurt, you are very efficient and slightly terrifying!

But for every example of an airport being representative of its home state you can work to come up with an example to the contrary. I remember Lima's airport being quite clean and pleasant, two adjectives that have never been applied to Peru's capital.

Alexander: Well, there are certainly airports which are like online dating profiles. Think of Lima's airport as an intense close-up with duckface, hiding the recent divorce and lack of height. You can only control so much, besides, even at the nicest airports. Prague’s is great but there's still nothing to eat but cheese and sausages and beer. Now, I happen to think that is the ideal travel diet—just go ahead and pre-dehydrate yourself, amirite?—but at 8 a.m. it's tough to stomach.

What do other airports in the US and across the globe have that we here in our NYC airports do not? Cleanliness, sure, but that's obviously not a priority to many New Yorkers, at least not the ones within a mile of McSorley's on St. Patrick's Day. Efficiency? That's a thing we like, but I'd argue that oftentimes we do have an efficient system. It's expensive and stupid as hell but against all odds people come to and fro every day. Amenities? Well, in that regard NYC's airports are a lot like McCarran in Las Vegas, whose operating philosophy is, let's make this airport as terrible as possible so you spend more time gambling instead. Good restaurants in the terminal are for places that you want to leave, and our abiding attitude in New York is and always will be: why would you want to leave?

Paul: So you're saying we should be happy with our miserable terminals and terrible ground delays and awful transportation connections because if you can make it here you can make it anywhere? You sound like Chris "Don't Tunnel Me Bro" Christie!

Alexander: Go fuck yourself. LEST YOU FORGET we already gave two shots to the dome of Newark, did we not? Chris Christie. Eating at Newark’s Oyster Bar could be a weight-loss plan for that man, though.

Paul: As much as I love eating oysters, I don't like my fellow passengers scarfing them down right before they board a plane with me. Too risky.

Maybe the best airport, then, is the one that just gets you on the damn plane. No oyster bars, no chair massages, no swimming pools on the roof: Just touch my junk and strap me in.

Alexander Basek and Paul Brady are both on the Internet.

Photo by Songquan Deng, via Shutterstock.

41 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

I am realizing I've never flown into New York. I've been many times, all by car or bus or train. Does this make me more or less prole-y?

Bittersweet (#765)

@deepomega: It makes you smart. Trying to get into the city from any of the airports, at any time of day, is an exercise in patience and resignation.

SeanP (#4,058)

@deepomega I've been to New York only once: and I pulled in on a Navy ship. Which was awesomely convenient – I just went to work one day in Norfolk as usual (but with my underwear packed), and my whole office got underway and brought me to NYC with it. It did take a lot longer than flying, though.

hockeymom (#143)

I agree with the LaGuardia love, even though the last bit over water when landing is kind of terrifying. Worst airports for connecting…Dallas and Chicago. You will have to travel miles to catch your connecting flight, especially if arriving from another country. And that's after waiting about an hour or more in the longest line ever, in customs.

Best airport if you need an LA option and don't mind driving…John Wayne in Orange County. Everything is so close, even the car rental. Clean and beautiful.

@hockeymom John Wayne is great, except not if you need to park (at least compared to LAX, it's way more expensive), and especially not if you're flying to the east coast – the only east coast non-stop is a Continental flight to, of course, Newark (at least that was the situation as of a few years ago – I assume it's still the same). Another fun thing about John Wayne is how the takeoffs go up at a really steep angle to minimize the noise for all the rich people that live nearby.

But, Long Beach wins for most adorable airport, with its art deco terminal that makes you feel like it's the 60's, and its outdoor baggage claim. And yet for all its tinyness you can still fly direct to Boston and DC (and maybe NYC? I don't know).

zidaane (#373)

@hockeymom But they both have good food!
I like LGA but it gives New Delhi a run for the money in seediness and drop ceilings with weird stains charm.

jfruh (#713)

@major disaster @hockeymom can we get some LA love for Burbank? Small, manageable, you get off the plane via tarmac stairs in classic style, plus there's even an extremely half-assed rail connection (i.e. you have to walk like half a mile to get to a commuter rail station where trains come maybe once an hour).

hockeymom (#143)

@jfruh I do love the Burbank location. Super quick to the bureau I used to sometimes work out of. But I recall it having a really short runway. I always felt like we were about to hit a building on take-off. Maybe I'm confusing it with somewhere else?

jfruh (#713)

It is incredibly obvious that there are two kinds of airports: Ones that have a single large continuos concourse behind the gates (or multiple concourses, connected by behind-the-security-gates trains or buses) an those that have lots of little concourses, each with their own security barrier. The first kind is infinitely better: you have better amenities, because instead of lots of little fiefdoms, each with its own Cosi and Dunkin Donuts and Hudson News and that's it, you have the potential customer base of the whole airport. Plus don't even get me started on how you should never in a million years have to go through security and then stand out on the curb making sure you don't get on the wrong bus and end up at the remote car rental facility, just to change planes in a city you have no real interest in being in (I'M LOOKING AT YOU, BOSTON LOGAN, FUCKFACE).

Anyway, all NYC airports are of the multiple-terminals-not-joined-behind-security type, so they all suck, QED. (Maybe Newark isn't? I've never flown into Newark.)

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

LGA is the best. It's just as shitty as the rest of the city, and we like it that way.

max bread (#5,970)

You guys kill Newark, and then complain that NYC airports don't have easy (commuter-rail) rides to the city center? Newark is a half-hour New Jersey Transit ride to Penn Station! (It's annoying for people who live in Brooklyn, sure, but so is going to the other two airports.) I mean! Really!

Bittersweet (#765)

@max bread: Newark is a half-hour New Jersey Transit ride to Penn Station!

At least in theory.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

@max bread – One of my worst airport stories involves spending 2 hours getting from EWR to Penn Station. Including the delightful 5 minutes that were spent in Secaucus Junction. Our very wise conductor refused to open the train doors (on an already severly overcrowded train) and hundres of drunk Jets fans pounded on the side of the train. All this fun for $15! What a bargain!

max bread (#5,970)

@Bittersweet I've never had a problem with the EWR>NYP trip! I mean I'm sure it happens (as it does on MTA!) but hand-to-god in the dozen or so times I've done it I've never once been delayed.

@max bread I don't think EWR is actually that bad under most circumstances.

But then there was the time, after cascading winter storm delays while coming back from X-mas in Detroit, when my repeatedly screwed-up flight didn't get in to EWR until around 1:40 am. There was a fun little gap in the NJ Transit schedule between 2:00am and nearly 6:00. Your options are to get a cab into the city for basically $100+, or overnight in the near-empty food court. I had to choose the latter, which ended up being one of the most sadly desperate and depressing nights of my life. I could see the lights of the city and had no way to get there.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Newark is clearly the best NY airport, hands down, until you consider that the ghastly NY Penn Station is in effect a remote component of EWR.

bombed_pop (#10,642)

@max bread What cab costs $100 from EWR to the city? It's $50 in Delancey car service or approx $55-60 if I am dumb enough to wait on line in the taxi rank. I live on the LES FWIW.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

Can we agree that Newark has the better customs? It's high ceilings and windows that let the light stream in onto the huge patriotic photos makes me feel sappy. JFK, on the other hand, makes me feel embarassed to be an American.

bombed_pop (#10,642)

@Tuna Surprise Yes – best and fastest customs, but sweltering hot in there.

I am disagreeing all around on EWR, I travel int'l a lot and I go out of my way to EWR. The crosstown traffic just to get to the Holland Tunnel is a nightmare, but once through, it is smooth sailing the rest of the drive and through security. Their duty free shops are bigger and better when it comes to cigarette selections (hello Gauloises), the Star Alliance lounges (formerly Pres. Clubs) are better (the C1 location, in particular, not C3 which is full of kids), and I never sit in traffic on the way back into the city, when it matters.

LGA is good in terms of speed and size, but not an int'l terminal and JFK makes me want to weep. Nothing good ever happens at JFK. Nothing. pre-flight sucks, post-flight sucks, it is a jumbled nightmare of angry employees and multiple flights using the same gate. And if you are delayed and have to sit at the bar? Forget ever even hearing that your flight is actually boarding.

Y'all can have the other airports, I'll take EWR FTW.

@Tuna Surprise
EWR has one of the best passport control halls in I've ever seen. Admittedly, I'm not super well traveled, but that is a welcoming (and efficient!) space.
I think it's a shame to under-appreciate EWR on the whole, but I guess if leaky, filthy old LGA gives you a chuckle, then by all means, enjoy it. That said, the East River approach is beautiful, as is the ascent going due west over Spuyten Duyvil, with all Manhattan spread out like a buffet.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

For an out-of-towner, Delta is 100% a New Yorker in the way it hides or falsifies key information.

eatbigsea (#1,361)

@bombed_pop Could not agree more. As a furriner, I always try to fly into EWR rather than JFK, as the immigration is so so much better at EWR. Quicker, nicer and just generally better.

At JFK, it's all dirt, lines and a general "fuck you, go home" attitude and at EWR it's a nice, clean and welcoming space and you get through relatively quickly.

my_piru (#13,158)

LGA is only the easiest to get to if you are madly in love with NYC traffic. One terrible bus goes there, and good luck getting there via public transit from Brooklyn (maybe to you 1% who live on the upper east side, its "easy")… And who has the $50 for a taxi each time?? JFK sucks big time (esp the hilarious delta terminal, which really does remind me of my time in Moscow in the early 90s) but at least you can get to it from a million metros or, even sexier, the LIRR…

katherine (#10,025)

@my_piru Or the percent who live in Astoria.

That Delta terminal is how I imagine the fall of Saigon.


Little known fact: it is 12 nautical miles from security to Gate 28.

joshc (#442)

Clearly the JetBlue terminal must have been vastly improved in the last couple years? Because it used to an overcrowded hellscape that makes the current Delta terminal look like a VIP lounge.

Currently, SFO's new Terminal Two (Virgin/American) is the best airport terminal in my known universe.

berthamason (#740)

I like this conversation very much. Could you do a New York vs. The World next on public transport? I have not been to all that many cities around the world, but among those I have visited, New York's subway system ranks dead last.

@berthamason The only way the MTA finishes behind BART or MARTA is alphabetically.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@berthamason Yeah, except after midnight. When it's #1 and only!

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@berthamason Every time I visit a city I am shocked by their superior subway systems with the notable exception of Rome which is actually bad even by America's low standards.

mrschem (#1,757)

@berthamason what? Behind London?

berthamason (#740)

@mrschem The MTA might have beat the London tube 10 or 15 years ago, but not anymore. @Clarence Rosario Oh yeah, I was only thinking internationally. The whole domestic situation overall is very bad indeed.

LondonEmmDee (#173,842)

Come to London. Via Gatwick. Know Misery.

eatbigsea (#1,361)

@LondonEmmDee It could be worse. It could be Luton.

LondonEmmDee (#173,842)

@eatbigsea YMMV. To me Gatwick is a refugee camp with a Boots.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Can't we at least acknowledge that JFK is LIGHTYEARS better than it was a decade ago? It used to all be like the Delta Terminal, now Delta stands out.

shewhoknows (#12,166)

I have to disagree–I have started only flying into Newark. For one thing, it's more pleasant and less crammed than JFK. 2. you can take the bus into Penn Station or the train relatively cheap and relatively quickly and can forgo a terrifying and expensive NYC cab driving experience. You will still have to get to your destination in city from there but from Penn and Port Authority, this is easier to do than not. I will acknowledge that if you are living in Brooklyn, this is not convenient but I still would rather fly into Newark. I prefer LaGuardia over JFK but it seems there are far too few flights and so they get backed up a bunch, no? Shame, that.

shewhoknows (#12,166)

Addendum. When I moved to NY, I lived in Astoria Queens and flew into LaGuardia and was home in less than 10 minutes for about that much money. I thought it would always been that easy. Little did I know.

Dilworth (#525)

Once I flew the Delta Shuttle into LGA late on a foggy Spring night. The Pilot came over the intercom and said "welcome ladies and gentleman to LaGuardia Field" It made me feel all weepy in a 'Goodbye to All That' kind of way.
With that said, has anyone flown Air Canada from LGA lately? I had a delay so long this summer I could have walked to Toronto in less time.

TheRtHonPM (#10,481)

@Dilworth Fly Porter from EWR instead. It is the last airline in the world that gives you free beer in economy, and it flies to Toronto's secret downtown airport.

petey (#8,666)

The kneejerk anti-NJ response to Newark is so trite. It's the most attractive, spacious one! Getting into the city on its airtrain + train = cheap and painless. If more than 1/2 it's flights left on time it'd be my clear winner.

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