Throughout a troubled 2022, the pandemic exposed many fragilities in a troubled U.S. airline industry, but it also enabled a widely recognized miracle in the $8 billion resurrection of New York LaGuardia Airport. Once widely viewed as a hellhole, LaGuardia was transformed.
Transformation involved rebuilding two terminals, each costing about $4 billion, as well as about five miles of roadway. Terminal B has 35 gates, occupied by American and four other airlines. Work began in 2016 and was completed on July 8, 2022, the exact day specified in a bond offering six years earlier. Terminal C, occupied and financed by Delta Air Lines, will have 37 gates. Work began in 2017 and is largely finished, with completion by the end of the year.
“You’ve had two miracles in Queens,” said Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “One was the Mets World Series win (in 1969) and the other was the rebuilding of LaGuardia in record time and while the airport was operating throughout the construction. LaGuardia was the first totally new major airport in the United States since Denver, and Denver was a greenfield.” The 1969 New York Mets are widely referred to as “the Miracle Mets’ for winning the Series after never playing a winning season. Denver International Airport opened in 1995.
Last week, Terminal B was recognized by Skytrax, a London-based transport rating firm, which ranked it as the world’s best new airport terminal. Terminal B is the first terminal in North America to receive a five-star airport terminal rating. Primary occupant American Airlines and Northeast Alliance partner JetBlue occupy about half of the gates; passengers connect easily between the two carriers. A second concourse is occupied by Southwest, United and Air Canada.
“Everybody hated LaGuardia. People we met in New York used the word ‘hate,’ and we turned that around,” said Stewart Steeves, chairman of LaGuardia Gateway Partners, which oversaw construction, as well as chief operating officer of Vancouver, B.C.-based Vantage Airport Group, which operates the terminal for the Port Authority. Steeves noted that in 2014 then Vice President Joe Biden said of LaGuardia that a visitor relieved of a blindfold would say, “I must be in some third world country.” Seeking change, Steeves said, “We made it a mission statement to make it an experience that everyone would love, and that’s in fact what’s happening. The word ‘love’ is showing up. We see it on social media, on popular talk shows, and in our data. It’s been absolutely transformational.”
The award reflects that Terminal B “is a product of thinking about every aspect of design and service around the customer experience — art, restaurants, (and) entertainment features” Steeves said. “We tried to have a facility where people would want to spend time, that has hospitality and not just transportation, that is somewhere pleasant to be, not feeling stressed or anxious about travel.” Cotton noted that both Terminals B and C are airy and light, embellished with high grade security and ticketing technology, stocked with local food and beverage purveyors and embellished with public art displayed by the Public Art Fund of New York and the Queens Museum.
While Terminal B was financed by LaGuardia Gateway Partners, Terminal C was financed by Delta, which is LaGuardia’s largest carrier. Terminal C will have 38 gates, of which 28 are operating now. “Today marks a new beginning for Delta customers and employees at our LaGuardia hub with the opening of this remarkable new terminal,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said on June 4, when C was partially opened. This summer, Delta will offer up to 255 daily departures to nearly 70 destinations.
Building a new airport on top of a busy, operating airport was challenge enough, and that was before the pandemic struck. “The first half was built pre-covid; the second half of each terminal was built during covid or past covid,“ Cotton said. “There was a commitment on the part of the Port Authority that they both needed to finish on time, working with LaGuardia Gateway Partners on B and Delta on C, with the Port Authority responsible for rebuilding the roadways. All three construction projects needed to be coordinated in relation to each other.”
The pandemic’s arrival brought plusses and minuses. On the plus side, “There was an astonishing decline in cars on the roadways, which self-evidently helped the roadway construction,” Cotton said. “But also, for the terminals, we were able to reduce the restrictions in terms of construction vehicles being on the roadway: to some extent we were able to allow lanes to be closed to regular traffic overnight.”
But the pandemic also brought supply chain bottlenecks as well as challenges to maintaining a safe work environment, for instance in terms of providing food and clean washrooms for workers. This was resolved in cooperation with the Building and Construction Trades Council, the workers union. “Typically on a construction site those are port-a-johns, but we broke one of the cardinal rules of construction sites,” Cotton said. ”In this case, we all jointly decided that the new airport bathrooms would be open to the construction workers.”