How Bad Are New York's Airports?

by Alexander Basek and Paul Brady

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.